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María Hernández, Our Canarian Craftsmanship

“I am from Pájara and I still live in Pájara. I am a Majorera: born and raised in Fuerteventura”. María Hernández represents the core essence of the island and embodies its traditions and craftsmanship with her basket weaving; a tradicional Canarian craftsmanship that she brought into modern times. Maria learned basket weaving through her family, maintaining the knowledge and technique of a craft that is pure art. She has become a strong defender of the tradition and does it with joy and delight. Her products however, are “adapted to modern times” as part of her secret is to use her knowledge and apply it to current costumers needs. She continous to make traditional products using palm as the principle material and at the same time, is very talented in finding new ways on how to manufacture this material.

How were you introduced to Canarian basket weaving?

Well, I was born into a family of artisans: I watched my grandmother and father do it. By the age of 15 I started weaving a thing or two. To be honest, I started doing it to make money but what I earned was just a small help. It was like that for a few years. I went to a market here and there, in Antigua, Fuerteventura, or in Gran Canaria.

But then the moment arrived when you decided to use this Canarian craftsmanship to make a living out of it…

In 2012 I quit my other job and dedicated my time exclusively to the craftsmanship. I used to work in hotels as a chef. Inside the hotel industry it was something that I enjoyed doing. I was used to preparing huge amounts of food for a lot of people!

You already summarised how you were introduced to basket weaving but could you tell us more about how everything started in your familiy?

We have always been making palm-leave baskets. We lived on a farm in Mezque and had many palm trees. I got to witness the whole process, how they cut the palm trees, how they dried them… Not every palm tree can be used and there are also differences concerning their toughness. After a few years we moved to Pájara were we are still living today. At first, my father used to do the hardest work and I was in charge of making hats and bags that people were already ordering… As they were hardly available anywhere else, I started to make them myself. Thruth is, I started to innovate more and more but I always stayed true to the traditional techniques, there was never any question about it.

At first, my father used to do the hardest work and I was in charge of making hats and bags that people were already ordering... Thruth is, I started to innovate more and more but I always stayed true to the traditional techniques, there was never any question about it.

Was it easy to sell Canarian crafts?

Well, they sold well and people kept ordering. The thing is, at first there weren’t any shops were you could sell them like we have them today with the museums and things like that. Over time, with the growth of tourism and new shops that opened, we started making different kinds of products. As tourism grew stronger we artisans began to have more places to exhibit our products.

It seems like your dad had the most influence on your life.

Of course. And my dad always did things a bit differently, he also liked to be innovative. He used to make things like los serones, which are baskets you put on donkeys to transport things. Depending on what people needed, he made them a bit differently. I am actually also making custom-made products. I can’t only make esteras (mats). He in turn also made different and beautiful things. Now, that he is 92 years old he doesn’t work anymore, even though he still did two to three years ago. He is always watching when I work with the palm trees, making sure nothing happens.

Is working with palm materials hard?

Getting the palm materials ready for weaving requires lots of work: stripping the palm tree, removing the leaflets, drying them and turning them over. All that is hours of work. You have to cut the palm fronds, remove the spines and sun-dry the leaves, which takes a week. The leaflets have to be removed early in the day, with the morning freshness. One day you dry the branches, and then the next day you put the leaflets of the same width together, removing the edges. Once you have enough metres you start sewing. Doing it the traditional way usually takes a long time.

What type of palm tree do you use?

I work with all types of palm leaves but mostly I use the ones from the Canarian palm tree.

Are palm products durable and do they require high maintenance?

The palm material is very durable. Let me give you an example: a hat I made for my mother is already 30 years old. If you don’t expose it to sun or water all day long, it lasts for years. Also a petaca, which is a bag for fishing gear, will last you for years. The first thing you have to do however, is to soak it with sea water and then it will last you for a very long time. The maintenance? If you try not to expose it too much to the sun and water, clean it and dust dust it well, the material will be very durable.

You mentioned your courses. Have you ever given talks at schools?

Yes, sometimes I give talks at schools. Last year I participated in the project called ‘Enredarte’. And for many years now I do it on the Día de Canarias (Canary Islands Day). The students are very curious. All of them look at you with that face… They ask questions and tell you what things made of palm material their parents or grandparents have. My intention is always that they make something themselves; a bracelet, a bookmark… They are very happy when they leave. The teachers tell me that it was very good so I guess all in all I’m doing a good job.

The craftsmanship will only go extinct if we let it. However, how can it disappear if we keep applying traditional techniques to products that people interest nowadays? That way, people will continue buying something traditional which at the same time, is something modern.

How do you see the future of the Canarian craftsmanship?

When I went to the artisan markets as a child, I always heard people saying to my dad and me that this craftsmanship will end with us. So I looked at him… The craftsmanship will only disappear if we let it. How could it go extinct if we keep applying traditional techniques to products that people interest nowadays? That way, people will continue buying something traditional that at the same time is something new.

Tourists for example are very interested in knowing what the pieces were made for, like for example the big esterilla. They want to know the history of those things. Even if they don’t buy the original piece, they end up taking a miniature. Craftsmanship will always have a future. It is up to us on how we want to keep it alive. I for one, am a defender of traditional craftsmanship: we should take care of what we have. Especially the techniques. We can keep them alive and use them for something different.

What products show your innovate side?

I would say flowers, small animals and the petaca. I also get requests for hats where people want me to be innovative. I make the petaca bags, originally used for fishing, with a leather top so they can be used as a backpack. I also get requests for weddings or communions. Sometimes people request things that seem almost impossible to make but I always try. It’s a very nice challenge. I always stay true to the techniques. Before, people didn’t make those types of products because life on Fuerteventura was very different. But nowadays there are a lot of people who like to purchase pieces that have a history. We also have to be smart about selling our products and we have to evaluate how they can be used.

Craftsmanship will always have a future. It is up to us on how we want to keep it alive. I for one, am a defender of traditional craftsmanship: we should take care of what we have. Especially the techniques. We can keep them alive and use them for something different.

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