"Hecha a mano! Handmade! Alles Handarbeit!" - When walking down the narrow alleyways of the crafts markets in the central Cuban town of Trinidad, visitors can hardly avoid the overzealous stall sellers advertising and praising their goods. The majority of the stalls are manned by women and feature items of pulled and drawn threadwork as well as embroidery and the occasional crochet and patchwork objects. The women highlight in multiple languages the handmade nature of their work as the unique selling point. Most pieces are done in white thread on white linen or cotton, but some also offer items with coloured thread on white background. Popular motifs are the so called 'Flower of Trinidad' and the 'Star of Trinidad'.
One thing that struck me about the textiles on offer in Trinidad is that while their handmade character is repeatedly stressed, they do not offer much in terms of individuality of design. Instead, they feature standardised patterns and designs and one can barely tell one woman’s work from that of the other. In fact, I suspect that some of the women are only the sellers and not the makers of the textiles, although they of course assure you that they have made each and every object in their stall themselves. Some can actually be seen working on pieces as they wait for customers. I have, however, also seen museum guards work on table cloths similar to those on offer in the stalls as they sit and observe the tourist pass through the exhibition rooms. It seems fair to assume that these cloths are being produced for sale and that the women are partnering with stall owners. The prices charged for the pieces are ridiculously low given the fact that they are clearly handmade. A large table cloth with matching napkins can easily be purchased for around 30 to 40 Dollars. Sadly, this is reflected in the quality of some of the pieces which upon closer inspection show the occasional loose thread or sloppily finished raw edge. The more surprised I was to see large numbers of middle aged German tourists buying the rather traditional looking table cloths. A good look in their mothers’ linen closet would most likely procure items very similar in technique and style and of potentially higher quality. On the passing of their mothers, however, these handmade textiles are too often thrown out or given away, which is how they regularly end up in my possession. Yet, purchased for little money in a picturesque town on a Caribbean island the handmade embroidered and threadworked table cloths seems to acquire a different kind of value.
I am extremely grateful to the scholarship’s donor and the University of Kent for making this trip possible and hope to develop some of the themes and ideas collected during my time in Cuba in more detail in the future.