The life of the aboriginal Palmeran has left samples of the tools used in their daily activities, the most abundant being the gánigos, or clay and sand pots, along with the circular hand mills of volcanic stone and things made from palm leaves.
Our prehistoric ancestors, the Benahoritas, lived in caves in the sides of ravines and in stone huts. They made ceramic bowls without a potters’ wheels. Their ignorance of the textile world was absolute, so they dressed exclusively with animal skins. They made utensils in varied materials and with rudimentary techniques; those made of stone, wood, clays, skins and seashells were most common.
In the 16th century, La Palma assumed the customs and traditions of Europe. There are few chronicles that provide data on daily living at that time. There is, however, one which is highly valued, “Saudades da Terra,” from the Portuguese voyage Gaspar Frutuoso, who visited La Palma in the middle of the century. In it you can read: “The aboriginal women, once warriors, became meek sheep, affable and conservative, married to Portuguese and Castilian men.” Referring also to this society he says “They are all goat and sheep breeders, they eat wheat and barley gofio, kneading it in oil, honey and milk, in roasters that they make of very smooth clay.” It is the first known reference to this specific piece of popular Palmeran earthenware.
The aborigines, according to Frutuoso, were learning the new imported customs: “They embroider well, but they hardly know how to spin and weave, which they leave for Portuguese women (…) They know how to make shirts, stitch doublets, embroider pillows and make other, very expensive ones of lacework… ” The quotation thus refers to the multiple influences that came from abroad in the 16th century. Also the researcher from La Palma, José Pérez Vidal, in his work “Los Portuguese en Canarias” (1991), collects the terminology, clearly of Portuguese origin, for the kinds of La Palma cloth, demonstrating that even today, after four centuries, most of the terms still in use come from Portuguese.
In the 19th century, the French traveller and architect Adolphe Coquet asked himself in his book “An excursion to the Canary Islands”: “Does this industrial talent come from a particular breed established in La Palma? In the 16th century the Flemish, terrorised by the Duke of Alba, were deported in great numbers to this island, where their descendants prospered. Perhaps the business sense that distinguishes this population from the rest of the archipelago comes from them.”
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, crafts still played a fundamental role in daily life on the island. These were hard times for the Palmerans. Religious art continued to develop thanks to the donations of the island’s landowners and the bequests of wealthy immigrants, which led to the establishment of numerous artisan workshops. The makers of religious statues and altarpieces, gilders, stonemasons, goldsmiths and other artists worked on these creations, producing a legacy that still endures today and which helped to maintain the weak Palmeran economy.
Between 1775 and 1779, there were 3,000 looms on La Palma, which was more than one loom per family. This number becomes even more striking if we take into account that at the same time, the island of Tenerife had just 44 looms. A large proportion of the Palmeran looms were dedicated to weaving silk, which at that time constituted an important part of the island’s economy.
However, the lack of sufficient raw material, wool and linen, prevented major textile development. This fact worried merchants and politicians, who voiced their concerns in the Economic Society of Friends of the Country. In response, an attempt was made to promote the development of linen, wool, cotton and silk production, which was not successful. The popular textile industry itself was in trouble because of massive imports of English wool and German linen. All this meant that, at the end of the 19th century, the textile trades of the island declined.
It is obvious that the Palmeran crafts have suffered a decline in their practical use and have often become gifts and decorations instead, which are valued and appreciated. However, Palmeran crafts are alive, and they continue to be useful on a daily basis.
Craft work is normally carried out part-time, fitting around housework, agriculture, or paid employment. It is not easy to live exclusively on them. It is slow work, in which the labourer measures not the hours, but the quality of the final result. Fortunately the majority of Palmeran artisans have resisted the temptation to simplify their work to turn out cheap products for tourists.
Most craft workers lack proper workshops, performing their trade in any corner of their home or in the garden.
Some assert that crafts on La Palma are on the way to becoming an outdated way of life, relegated to museums and the pseudo-folkloric sector, with no better prospects than becoming a sideshow curiosity of older people resigned to their trade being lost. However, in recent years there has been a greater interest in artisan work from the Island Council of La Palma; training courses have been and are being given in different disciplines, crafts have appeared at artisans’ fairs and exhibitions in all municipalities, among which a significant number of young people stand out, it’s become normal for men to take up craft work; sales have increased and, above all, a great awareness has awakened for everything that is done manually and is, at the same time, artistic, durable and of high quality.