In Spain, ‘esparto‘ is the common name of a grass which until well into the twentieth century had a huge importance in the economy of many towns in Spain. Making products from esparto has deep historical roots, noting that the Romans favoured this plant for its strength and versatility. It is a fine, durable and flexible grass of up to 60cm in height, native to uncultivated, dry and stony areas in central and Southern Spain and also North Africa. Its scientific name is Macrochloa tenacissima (syn. Stipa tenacissima).
The Spanish esparto quality exceeds that of other Mediterranean countries because it contains a higher percentage of cellulose and the fibre is much finer. The plant is referred to generally as espartera or atocha and was first used to make twine and rope for ship’s rigging, in agriculture and basketry. Areas naturally covered in tussocks of this grass are called espartales, atochares or albardinales.
During the many years of mastering skills in crafting this natural product people have added new uses, developed various styles of weaving and plaiting, each given its own name.
A lost art? watch this video (in Spanish)
Older generations of many villages still preserve the tradition of weaving objects from esparto. Historically they used this local product as there were no other choices, and from necessity they had to create shoes from it to work in the fields, holders to carry their water and lunch, baskets to collect the harvest, rugs for their floors and blinds for their windows.
We rely on them now to pass on their memories to another generation so preserving the art of weaving such versatile, and now more ornamental products, teaching others how to use the purpose made tools and to share their vocabulary and wisdom.
- El capazo a wide circular basket to carry and store logs for the long winter evenings.
- Los tizneros on which to place the hot cooking pots fresh from the fire.
- Las soguillas sandals whose soles of esparto are formed by a spiral of twisted cord, then sewn into place and lined with fabric to form a shoe.
- Garrafas forradas de pleitas de esparto bottles surrounded in woven plaits of esparto, often with handles, to protect the glass, make it easier to carry and act as insulation to the wine or water within.
- Los serones the panniers used to carry goods on donkeys and mules.
- La pleita a wide, plaited band of esparto – braided in groups of at least three, the greater thewidth the greater the number of strands of grass needed to make la pleita. This band could later be used to create a basket cesta, or be used as a mould to shape cheese – quesera.
Initial plant growth of this grass is very slow but after its third year it is more profuse and the best stems form after it is five years old. (The quality and quantity only declining after the plant is fifty years old.) The stems are collected from June to August when the grass has matured after the spring growth period. It can be collected by hand using a bar, around which a handful of stems are wrapped and then pulled free. If harvested at the wrong time this could rip the plant’s root system and damage future growth. Pulling with a bar can damage the tips of the grass, a slower but better method is to grasp only a few strands by hand, pulling them quickly upwards. The pulled grass stems are cleaned and sorted, discarding any broken or short strands, then bundled and tied.
- Green Esparto: is dried in the shade to preserve its colour.
- Golden Esparto: is dried in the sun.
- Cured Esparto: the bundles are sun dried before being soaked in large water containers for several weeks, then dried again and beaten to soften the fibres.
Esparto grass – Stipa tenacissima – esparto – Spanish esparto grass, the british Paper industry and the businessman William Mac Murry
There was a close relationship between Spanish esparto and the paper industry in the late nineteenth century, but a prominent part was also an English businessman known as William Mac Murray who is attributed a great influence in our country to be a manufacturer of wire utensils in Scotland and his company was very successful in supplying the paper industry of the whole world continuous wire mesh for paper machines. He would also become a paper manufacturer, papermaker and owner of some newspapers. In 1847 he moved to the southeast of England where he had four pulp mills. Much of the paper was made with esparto from southeastern Spain, where McMurray leased large farms for its collection, built factories where to transform it and exported it to Great Britain in its own steamboats; Due to the shortage of rags to make paper in the middle of century XIX was solved in Great Britain with the introduction of esparto as raw material.
The first patent to manufacture paper and paperboard with esparto was registered in England in 1839. Several paper manufacturers experimented with specific methods to obtain pulp.
From 1865 a good part of this paper was made with imported esparto from the farms that William McMurray controlled in Spain, that it climbed in barges by the river Thames from the docks of London and was unloaded in a dock Or dock at the mouth of the Wandle River, which was also owned by McMurray and became known as the McMurray Canal.Read more here….. https://www.artesaniaconesparto.com/gb/blog/papel-de-esparto-y-mr-mcmurray-b39.html
Today, esparto products have been relegated more to items of ornamentation. Sadly the decline in its use has been steady since being replaced by rubber, plastic and synthetic fibres.
However, UBEDÍES ARTESANÍA is a family run business and has been devoted to manufacturing esparto crafts for four generations.
Located in the Renaissance city of Úbeda, Spain, declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Ubedíes Artesanía recovers old time products and handcraft making and their products are completely eco-friendly,
Ecomuseo in Castilléjar (Granada province)
Located in the town of Castilléjar in Granada province you will find the Ecomuseo that is well worth a visit if you are in the area. This tourist and information centre also hosts an exhibition dedicated to the history of esparto grass.
There is a website describing the museum here: https://ecomuseocastillejar.wordpress.com/el-ecomuseo/
Or, have a look at the facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/ecomuseodecastillejar/
This area is also a part of the Granada global geopark: https://wildsideholidays.co.uk/granada-global-geopark/
The Grazalema Guide
The best way to see all our web projects in one place is over at the Grazalema Guide.
The Grazalema Guide – Tourist Information Portal for the Sierra de Grazalema, Wildside Holidays, The town of Ronda and the Caminito del Rey.