Introduction

According to Joan Coromines, the Spanish word
“calabaza” is of pre-Roman origin, possibly Iberian, and related with “galápago” (turtle) and
“caparazón” (shell) (Coromines, 2008). For this
reason, the popular name for this piece of basketry, which we have documented in Nerpio
and Yeste (Albacete province) and la Puebla de
Don Fadrique (Granada Province,) is an archaic
Spanish term for gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)
cultivated for use as canteens. The name was
then extended to include the American species
of the genus Cucurbita (pumpkins and squashes) used as a food in Europe since the discovery of America. Both genera of the Cucurbitaceae family are known as “calabazas” in Spanish.

This is a basketry piece traditionally made by
shepherds and used to store water when tending sheep in the pastures. We encountered
these gourds in the mountains of Albacete and
Granada (SE Spain), although in the past they
were probably much more widespread, at least
throughout the mountains of Southeastern
Spain.
People have traditionally cultivated gourds
(Lagenaria siceraria) to use as canteens. Often,
these gourds were covered with esparto braids,
using different techniques (knot switch, plait,
etc.). But, the “calabazas de esparto” are canteens made solely with esparto.
Basketry for liquids is not just confined to esparto. The same piece, made with straw or willow and water-proofed with pine tar , was
common in North Central Spain, mainly in Castille (Kuoni, 2003, Fontales, 2013).

Figure 2. Willow canteen (barrila) (Ethnography Museum “Piedad
Isla”, Cervera de Pisuerga, Palencia).
Figure 1: Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) half-covered with esparto
to use as a canteen.

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In the Archaeological Museum of Cartagena,
there is a similar piece made of esparto grass
and dating back to Roman times (Figure 3).

The crafter begins by making a bundle with a
few esparto leaves, which are then wrapped
with the leaf threaded to the needle. These
leaves are slowly sewn together into a tight
spiral to make a flat disk, threading a new esparto leaf every 2 or 3 centimetres until the desired diameter is reached. The side wall is then
woven to give the canteen a bowl shape.
Esparto is more pliable when moist.

Figure 3. Left, Roman canteen covered with esparto found in Cartagena (Cartagena Museum, photo by Carlos Fontales). Right,
same piece, same technique, 2000 years later (Yeste, Albacete).
Figure 4. Detail of stitching.

Technique
The raw material used is pounded esparto
grass. This is prepared by soaking in water for
one month. During this time, the leaves ferment, losing the pectins which bind the fibres.
The esparto is then dried and pounded with a
wooden mallet, thus softening and enriching
the fiber.
To make a “calabaza”, a needle is used to thread the tip of one esparto leaf. According to
María García, from Elche de la Sierra (Albacete
province), a special stitch is used called “punto
de ojal” (buttonhole stitch) in Spanish. Thanks
to Juan Beteta from the town of Yeste
(Albacete), we have been able to preserve the
knowledge necessary to make this unique piece. Juan is the last known craftsman who still
makes these canteens, using a technique which
he learned from an old shepherd from Yeste
known as “manos de seda” (silk fingers).

In the centre turns of the side wall, the crafter
must leave a hole in order to weave a mouthpiece. Belt loops are also woven into the sidepiece and a handle or belt is then added. After
this first piece is made, the second flat disk is
woven and sewn to the first.
In the canteens which we have studied, the
handle is made with a thin 8-stranded rope
(forming a square) or a braid of 5 strands
(recincho or crineja in Spanish). In some cases,
the sides are reinforced with a wide braid made
with 7 strands of pressed esparto. In another
case, the inside of the flat disks are reinforced
in the middle by a short cord which joins the
two faces.

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Figure 5. Basketry technique. Beginning spiral and half-finished
piece.

Once the “calabaza” is finished, it must be water-proofed with pine tar (“pez” in Spanish).
To do this, the pine tar has to be melted and
slowly poured into the canteen, spreading the
tar along the inside surface. The pine tar must
not be too hot, otherwise the esparto may
burn. Once the tar has solidified, the canteen is
water-proofed.
Pine tar was made in “pegueras”, which were
tar ovens located on slopes in open areas. These were filled with pine heartwood (“tea” in
Spanish), a raw material from which pine tar
was obtained following a process of dry distillation by fire.

Figure 6. Juan Beteta.

Acknowledgements
Many thanks to the people who have participated in this project: Juan Beteta from Yeste, Paco Moreno from Nerpio, Isaac García from La
Puebla de Don Fadrique (Granada). Very special thanks to Juan Beteta who taught us this
technique, which we have reproduced in the
Esparto Workshop of the Folk University of Albacete, where Daniel García, Alfonso Mansanet
and others have made new pieces.

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Calabazas de esparto are an ancient
part of the Spanish basketry and are
part of the culture of Esparto, unique
intangible heritage of the Western
Mediterranean

References

Figure 7. Calabaza de esparto made by Daniel García (Esparto
Workshop, Folk University of Albacete).

Coromines, J. 2008. Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana. Ed. Gredos.
Kuoni, b. 2003. Cestería Tradicional Ibérica. Ed. del aguazul.
Fontales, C. 2013. More than baskets. Spanish basketry.
Texts: José Fajardo and Alonso Verde
Design: Miguel R. Brotons
Pictures: Carlos Fontales, Paco Moreno and José
Fajardo

Figure 8. Calabaza from Nerpio (photos, Paco Moreno).

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