Entering the taller of Hilda Díaz Salas, multi-colored butterflies, bouquets of flowers, miniature rabbits, cats and dogs all stared at me from their designated spots in the bright, circular room.
These intricate creations had not wandered out of a fairytale. Each one was the result of days and even weeks of patience, dedication and a deep knowledge of the niche craft of Crin de Caballo, or simply Crin.
Salas, winner of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts 2012, invited me into her Providencia-based workshop, Crin Fusion, in Santiago. The artisan spoke enthusiastically about the craft that made her village famous, revealing some of the tricks of the trade while also sharing her passion to keep this tradition alive ahead of her exhibition at the Muestra Internacional de Artesanía Tradicional (Nov 28- Dec 9), in Parque Bustamante, organised by Universidad Católica.
The skilled artisan believes that her village, Rari, is the birthplace of this rare craft in which horsetail hair is used to hand weave miniature objects, dating back almost two hundred years. A six hour drive south of Santiago, in the Maule Region, Salas’ hometown is located beside the picturesque Panimávida hot springs.
“Women went to the river with their daughters to wash their clothes and began to collect plant fibers that had fallen into the water from Sauces [willow-like trees]. Mothers wove miniature baskets out of this for their daughters to play with,” Salas told This is Chile.
“The tale holds that one day a girl was trying to make her own basket but ran out of Sauce fibers. She found hair from a horse’s tail caught on a tree branch nearby and used that to finish her basket. Her mother saw this and found it an easier material to use, as it was stiff but still flexible,” Salas said. “That’s how the tradition began in our village,” she continued proudly.
The handicraft figures became synonymous with the village and to this day their charm draws in visitors from far and wide.
“Tourists who visited started establishing connections with our artisans there and ordered customized Crin miniatures. It became the primary occupation for our women and their products were sold in the village and in nearby train stations,” the Rari native said.
Feeling the delicate butterfly hairpins and earrings in Salas’ workshop, I immediately grasped their charm. They are 100% natural, which makes them lighter than plastic or nylon and the transparency of the hairs lets light shine through the colored threads.
“People sometimes mistake the material for plastic. But if they look closer, they always see the difference. When people learn that they are dealing with such a pure material, they become very attached to the craft and even want to learn how to practice it themselves,” Salas said.
According to Salas, the deep-rooted mystery surrounding Crin and its appearance is a result of the inhabitants’ insistence on keeping the tradition amongst them.
“Once we realized the popularity of Crin, we stopped teaching it to outsiders to keep it exclusive,” Salas told This is Chile. “It’s such a shame because I feel that the craft may disappear soon and it’s our responsibility to pass it along to the younger generations. That’s one of the main reasons I don’t just make, I teach,” Salas said.
Watching her fingers work away, twisting and winding the pink, blue and green thread-like hairs, I wondered where this mesmerizing material actually came from.
“Horse raisers know about this craft and seek us out to sell the tails to us. It’s either from dead horses or they cut their tails off,” Salas explained calmly. Quickly spotting my worried expression she added “you needn’t worry! They’re just like ours. If you cut them off they’ll grow right back.”
A kilo of horsetail hair costs approximately US$ 160 (80,000 CLP), with white tail hairs being more expensive as they are the only ones that can be colored.
“Once I receive the tails I leave them to soak in water with a special disinfectant for a couple of days. I then rub the hairs with gloves to make sure they’re clean enough to use. To color them I just use normal clothes dye,” she said.
She offered me a couple of whole horse tails to touch and compare.
“The quality of the hair varies, just like with humans. Fine hair is good for getting the small details of a design just right, whereas thicker hair is good for larger creations,” Salas explained animatedly.
If crafts in Chile tend to typify their place of origin, then this unique art certainly has character enough to give Rari the title of the home of Crin.
“In the same way that Pomaire’s fame for pottery precedes it, my town has also become associated in people’s minds with Crin. I hope we can all help to keep it that way,” Salas said smiling.
By Daphne Karnezis