I first saw these cylindrical handwoven bags in Medellín, Colombia, worn by a couple of delegates at the UN World Urban Forum. I noticed them because they looked unusually sturdy, very finely handwoven in wool, and beautifully patterned. After I arrived in Bogotá I realized they are actually common. They’re called mochilas and are a traditional artisanal bag made by the Arhuaca people in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Maria mountain range. Traditionally they were made either from agave fibre, hemp or wild cotton, thought after the arrival of the Spanish they were also made from various wools. You can also see synthetic fibres used (see top left in photo below) as well as disappointing mass-produced versions. Traditionally the patterns indicated families via their totemic animals, often very abstracted.
“Starting in the 1960s, the arhuaca mochila left the geographical arhuaco, penetrated large Colombian cities (especially Santa Marta, Valledupar and Barranquilla), and is used primarily by young people today as a way to claim their indigenous culture. In 2006, the backpack was nominated as the Arhuaco cultural symbol of Colombia in the contest organized by the magazine Semana.” It now seems that the bag has more generally become a symbol of Colombia and have been adopted by a wide range of people dressed in varying degrees of casualness. More here.
It felt a little weird to be following people around and stealthily photographing their bags.
These bags are not cheap in Bogotá, by the way. They’re cheaper in towns where they are made such as Santa Clara, but they shouldn’t be. As with most weaving, it takes an enormous amount of labour to make a single bag.
The bag I bought is the minimalist white one at right in the very last photo.
This one is a bag in a different style and from jute: