I first noticed these cylindrical handwoven bags on a couple of delegates at the UN World Urban Forum in Medellín, Colombia. They looked unusually sturdy, very finely handwoven in wool, and all had unique and beautiful geometric patterns. A week later in Bogotá I realized they are actually quite common. The bag is called an arhuaca mochila and is a traditional artisanal bag made by the Arhuaco people in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta 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 second 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 itself and have been adopted by a wide range of people dressed in varying degrees of casualness. More here.
These bags are not cheap in Bogotá, by the way. They’re cheaper in towns where they are made, such as Santa Clara, but frankly they shouldn’t be. As with most weaving, it takes many days and an enormous amount of labour to make a single bag and the weavers should be paid appropriately.
One of the mochilas 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: