'Readings in Nonviolence' features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)
By Stefania Gualberti
Arpilleras are three dimensional appliquéd tapestries originating in Chile in the late 1960s. They originally depicted the landscapes and everyday lives of women and their families in rural areas. They were made with scraps of different materials found in homes using the burlap from bags of potatoes or flour as a canvas. Arpillera means strong burlap. During the Pinochet dictatorship (1973 - 1990) they became a form of resistance.
Through workshops with the Association of Relatives of Detained and Disappeared sponsored by the Vicariate of Solidarity of the Catholic Church in Chile, in 1977 women courageously came together and made arpilleras to tell their stories portraying the places, the people and the events happening as a result of the political and social repression.
These women spoke out through sewing. Sewing allowed them to come out of the despairing silence caused by losing loved ones, injustices, fear and extreme poverty conditions. They sewed about their disappeared, using pieces of material of their clothes, pyjamas, socks; they illustrated acts of protests repressed by the regime; they showed everyday struggles and survival scenes. The arpilleras were sold abroad becoming a vital form of income for some of the women who having lost fathers, husbands, and sons became the only providers for their families.
Arpilleras, arriving outside of Chile, connected the lives of these women and their families with the people who bought them. People abroad supported the women who made the arpilleras, bearing witness to the truth of what was happening under the regime. These beautiful connections of interdependence speak to us today from the little pockets, often sewn in the back of the arpilleras, which contain the original handwritten message by the arpilleristas who made them.
Arpilleras were not only serving the purpose of sustaining these women financially, for the process of making them helped the women to heal. Gathering clandestinely to share materials and techniques, allowed them to support each other as they shared their stories of suffering in a new way. As Marjorie Agosin, the first major chronicler of arpilleras, states in one of her books; "With leftovers of fabric and simple stitches, the women embroidered what could not be told in words…" (1)
That process gave these women the strength and confidence to demand justice and reparation.
Roberta Bacic, is a researcher, lecturer, human rights and pacifist activist, and an expert on arpilleras. Originally from Chile, she has been collecting these textiles since the early 2000 and has curated many exhibitions of them all over the world. She recognised the power arpilleras have as a testimony of nonviolent resistance to the dictatorship and the impact they have on people who see them and work out their meanings.
Karen Nickell in her PhD published in 2014 said about Roberta: "After the Pinochet regime she worked for the National Corporation of Reparation and Reconciliation (1993-1996) seeking the truth of what had happened during the dictatorship. She was frustrated that 'the pain and emotion had to be discarded, only the legal testimony was required for the commission; the impact on the women was irrelevant . . . you can't contribute to the history unless you archive and make things accessible' so recognising the arpilleras as the personal testimony that had been deemed 'irrelevant' she has been working to bring these neglected stories to the attention of the world." (2)
Along with the many exhibitions she has curated, Roberta has been organising and facilitating workshops on how to make arpilleras, particularly the dolls which animate them. Along with the amazing existing pieces carefully chosen and beautifully displayed in each exhibition, she brought with her the art of making arpilleras.
Art has the power to touch emotions directly. In this regard arpilleras are amazing objects that carry the emotions of the people who made them stitch by stitch; they provoke emotions and reactions, connecting the people who look at them with the life experience of the arpilleristas who made them. They have an international language that connects, inspires, provokes and deeply moves.
The visual aspect of the arpilleras is a catalyst for discussions and conversations. During the workshops, participants who have seen the exhibition start to talk about it in a circle around a table with colourful materials, threads and needles. As they discuss the impact of the exhibition, ask questions of the facilitator and actually make one, they begin to grasp the meaning of these special textiles.
Arpilleras can be made with very little sewing skills although there is a great richness of detail and meaning in them. The arpilleras workshops demonstrate the significance of sewing and telling your story as a healing transformative process along with the idea that each person is an artist.
In the doll making workshop participants are asked to bring pieces of material with some emotional meaning for them. The process of making the doll, choosing materials, patterns, colours, brings out stories and memories that help the maker experience in a different way.
Since the Chilean arpilleras were born they have inspired makers elsewhere. Groups of women started to make arpilleras in Peru and more recently in Spain, Brazil, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Ecuador.
Roberta writes "Across these varying contexts, in workshops primarily attended by women, the burning issues remain remarkably similar. As women reflect, discuss and caress the different textured fabrics, stories of political conflict, anti-war protests, repression, resistance, survival, denial, death, disappearances, displacement, national histories, environmental concerns, indigenous land struggles and transition to democracy are stitched." (3)
Roberta has also introduced the arpillera-making skill to groups of men and to school children.
The first exhibition of Arpilleras curated by Roberta was in Derry, Northern Ireland, on International Women's Day 2008. That exhibition entitled "Art of survival: International and Irish quilts" was the beginning of the journey of the Conflict Textile collection. Roberta has created this international textile collection made of 260 pieces of arpilleras, quilts and wall hanging and has travelled with them for exhibitions and workshops in Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Germany, Jamaica, Ireland and the UK.
The Arpillera Journeys exhibition by Roberta Bacic, was launched at the Tower Museum, in Derry City, Northern Ireland, on 6 March 2015 to again mark International Women's Day. The launch was addressed by Catherine Flood, the Co-Curator of the Disobedient Objects exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London about protest art and design produced by grassroots social movements over the last 35 years.
At the launch Catherine spoke about the decision of showing arpilleras in the Disobedient Objects exhibition saying "Chronologically they marked the beginning of the period covered by the exhibition as one of the first examples of creative resistance to the emerging forces of neoliberalism. In planning the Chilean coup in 1970 President Nixon instructed the CIA 'to make the economy scream'. The arpilleras in their act of making and their depiction of murders and disappearances alongside sunrises over the Andes Mountains embody both a scream of negation and a thread of hope for another future."
Catherine described her journey of discovering arpilleras as guided by Roberta: "As we looked [at the arpilleras] Roberta began to unpack the different layers of their meaning. Out came the everyday and extraordinary stories depicted in the arpilleras, then real life people represented by the dolls, and the symbolic motifs. There was their materiality and everything that the scraps of sacking and fabric told about the realities of the lives of the women who made them.
There was the process of making them and how gathering together into workshops to sew their stories gave women the emotional and collective strength to begin speaking out.
And there was the impact they had when they were smuggled out of the country and became windows that allowed the outside world to see what was happening inside Chile.
Finally we came to recent arpilleras from Colombia, South Africa and Ireland and I learned that, far from being an historical phenomenon, arpillera-making is a technique that has travelled from Chile to be used by women all around the world in many different situations of resistance. And I began to see how Roberta's work with her collection has been the catalyst for this process." (4)
The Arpillera Journeys exhibition, which will remain at the museum until 12th June 2015, is particularly important because it marks the passage of the textile exhibitions from a private collection to the archive and museum collection of Derry City Council. The collection is called Conflict Textiles.
The collection will be available as a public resource which will ensure the continuation of a process of interaction with the local and international public, continuing to challenge, move and inspire.
() Embroidery in the Expanded Field: Textile Narratives in Irish Art Post-1968, Karen Nickell, 2014
() The Art of Resistance, Memory, and Testimony in Political Arpilleras, Roberta Bacic
() Keynote presentation at the launch of Arpillera Journeys by Catherine Flood, Co- Curator Disobedient Objects V& A, 6th March 2015, Tower Museum, Derry
References - further reading
Bacic, Roberta: The Art of Resistance, Memory, and Testimony in Political Arpilleras, in Stitching Resistance: Women, creativity, and the fibre arts edited by Marjorie Agosín, Solis Press, UK, 2014, chapter 9, page 65-73
The most comprehensive recording of the arpilleras and their journeys can be found in the CAIN website .
Bacic, Roberta: "Quilts and arpilleras", INNATE readings, September 2009, accessed 21.04.2015
Bacic Roberta: "Saying no to Pinochet dictatorship through non-violence", Open Democracy 1.03.2010 accessed 21.04.2015
Bacic, Roberta: "Arpilleras: Evolution and Revolution". Public lecture – Friends of Te Papa, Main theatre, Te Papa Tongarewa, 2.09.2013 accessed 13.05.2015
Bacic, Roberta: "Arpilleras in contested spaces", in Die subversive Kraft der Menschenrechte edited by Niko and Teresa Huhle, Paulo Freire Verlag, Germany, 2015, pages 391-411
Brown Maia, "All through stitch", Nonviolent News Readings in Nonviolence, December 2010, <>, accessed 24.05.2015
Flood Catherine, Keynote presentation at the launch of Arpillera Journeys, Co-Curator Disobedient Objects V& A, Tower Museum, Derry, 6.03.2015,
<> accessed 21.04.2015
Nickell Karen, Embroidery in the Expanded Field: Textile Narratives in Irish Art Post-1968, 2014 ccessed 5.5.2015
- Stefania Gualberti and Roberta Bacic are both involved with INNATE.