Designing and sewing ponchos for my family causes me to see ponchos everywhere. Suddenly, the poncho has become an object of my not-so-discreet fascination. When Max inquired about the origins of the poncho, I realized I needed to study a little history. And then I realized the history of ponchos is as rich and multi-faceted as the individual members of our family. Sometimes the best way to explore history is by telling a story….
THE STORY OF A PANCHO FAMILY
Nothing went as planned for the Pancho family that evening. The Pancho children kept coming unraveled while their parents kept misplacing the needles needed to stitch everyone back together. When even fresh stitches didn’t help, and every difference between the Pancho kids proved a reason for more fighting and fussing, Mom and Dad Poncho realized that the time had come to bridge these differences with a little family history.
Given his penchant for clean dishes and well-organized pre-planning sessions, Dad assembled the kids on the couch in a mostly orderly fashion. Given her taste for embellished velvet and stories fatter than a bullfrog on a wet rock under a summer full moon, Mom started telling the family story. And this is what she said.
Long ago, before Mr. Clean invented the wall eraser to help homes with crayon graffitti, when ponchos rode in horses and buggies and colonialism was cooler than the beer, my family history began. We’ve traced my ancestors back to the Fruitlands, a utopian commune created in Concord, Massachussetts in 1884 by people who wanted to opt out of the industrial economy and get back to the land. They believed that manual labor was a “purifying discipline”- that it was good for the heart and the head and the soul. A man named Bronson Alcott, the father of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the book Little Women, brought his family to Fruitlands. Bronson was part of the the Nonresistance Society, “a radical offshoot of the abolitionist movement who believed in the systematic oppression of all human institutions opposed to divine law and the duty to withdraw immediately leaving them to collapse under the burden of their own evil”.
The requirements of manual labor made suits, cravats, and city clothing useless at Fruitlands. So Bronson walked about in an unbleached cotton poncho which helped to shield him from the elements and served as a sign of outward modesty. I come from this utopian white unbleached poncho- the uniform of hopeful humans trying to find and extend the good in the world. Bronson didn’t stay at Fruitlands for too long- he soon discovered that all the manual labor made leisure and reading and family time impossible. He felt that his spirit suffered under the weight of poverty and endless work. So he took his family from Fruitlands. Today, you can visit Fruitlands as a museum and retreat, but the commune is only a memory. My family, rooted in this utopian spirit, continued and you can meet its extended progeny at various concerts and communes around the country.
Daddy’s ancestry is more exotic and colorful. His family comes from 17th century Peru, where the wet climate of the Peruvian mountains created a need for warm outer coverings. Since the Peruvian mountain people cultivated alpacss and were very skilled in the art of textile weaving, they wove dad’s ancestors by hand from alpaca wool, which is waterproof, like fleece, when stitched.
The Peruvians decorated the ponchos by dying the wool. The common Peruvian poncho had a bright geometric design on a red background. It was often accompanied by a brightly knitted woolen hat with ear flaps. Over time, the colors and patterns on ponchos were used to indicate family lineage (like Scottish kilts), occupation, and place of origin. Dad’s ancestors communicated important social information to the human culture of Peru.
Today, you can see dad’s extended family at various Peruvian festivals and across the Latin American world. You can also understand why he tends towards the colorful and reddish moments of life.
When you bring together the fibers from an unbleached cotton poncho and ornately patterned alpaca wool ponchos, you end up with very diverse, beautiful, and interesting results. Because your family history is rooted in such different textures and fabrics, as little ponchos, you honor those differences in your appearance, tendencies, tastes, and styles. Rather than fight and argue over your individualities, try to remember that your common ancestry has given rise to beautiful distinctions.
For more about the history of ponchos: