Ever since our first day of living in Ronda, Andalucía I was in awe of the street sweeper’s brooms. I would follow the cleaning crews around with my camera surreptitiously behind my back, trying to snatch photos of their perfectly setup: A couple of sturdy hand-made long shafted brooms standing upside down in plastic garbage bins placed in a two wheeled metal cart. The brooms were fabricated with a straight de-branched stick, a handful of thin reeds and a string to tie it all together. It could not be any simpler, yet to me it was a piece of art. Not since the elegant grass skirted street brooms in Mexico had I had such a case of broom envy.
Realizing that this would not be a passing obsession of mine, my husband asked one of the local sweepers where we could buy one of their most-coveted articles. Surprised that anybody would be remotely interested in her most humble work tool, she told him that the brooms were not for sale. Apparently she got hers from their depot, where probably some handy fellow were sitting producing them by the truckload.
Since I am not one to give up easily, I continued the broom sale inquiries, first asking the women in my furniture restoration group. Everybody knew exactly which brooms I was taking about. They told me that either their fathers or their grandfathers used to make them, with the emphasis on used to. Our friends also said the same thing. Homemade brooms were quite passé. The popular argument was why make a wood and grass broom when one could buy a perfectly fine Made in China plastic broom for a couple of euros in every other store in our barrio. Of course they had a point. Even at a minimum wage a handmade broom would easily cost ten times that amount. To me however there was no competition. Handmade brooms, even the basic ones used on our streets were light-years apart from the mass-produced goods. The stick might not be able to telescope in and out like the factory-made ones did, but neither did they rust or break as easily as the new wonders. They did not become useless once the bristles started falling out. You just tied on a few more reeds. Besides, the old brooms made a lovely natural swishing sound as they flew over the cobbled pavement. And as far as looks, they would make any witch proud.
I had basically given up on my homemade broom search by the time we purchased the last original house on our street. One day as I was sweeping up peeling paint and crumbling wall pieces with a nearly destroyed plastic broom that I had found in a cupboard under the stairs of our ramshackle ruin, there was a knock on the door. Manolo, the old gentleman who lived a few houses down the street was standing outside with a handmade broom and a big smile. For you, he said and handed it to me. I was completely dumb struck by his utterly unexpected kindness. He had gone to the fields, cut and collected sticks and reeds and spent hours making a broom for us, a pair of new neighbours that he hardly knew. Where we had come from you would be lucky if anyone lent you a broom…
Being in his mid eighties, Manolo belonged to the old school of Andalucian rural town-folks. He would have survived the war years and the thin calves thereafter. For his generation, knowing how to make and repair things would have been a means of survival. Actually, in our ruin, we had found coils of braided Esparto grass, which the late husband of the former owner had made into rope, baskets and floor mats. All the farm chairs in our fixer-upper where chiselled by hand, while the seat part was made from the same braided grass. Since the former owner was long gone, we were witnessing the slowly dying crafts of Andalucía.
Just last Saturday Manolo came on our door again. We had for the longest time been telling him that we would love to see how he made his beautiful baskets, but as happens in life, the months flew by and actually almost two years had past. I was secretly starting to worry that we would be to late. But here was our sturdy little neighbour, his strong working hands clasping around two bunches of wooden reeds. You wanted to learn, he said. This was our chance to see basket weaving done right in front of our eyes and we were not about to miss it. Manolo brought out three of the same low farm chairs as we had found in our house, placing them outside his basement door, a place where he otherwise hid his many craft projects and other curiosities. Serenaded by a couple of caged birds and a very fat partridge, he started selecting sticks, measuring lengths, clipping ends and placing double sets of branches in a star-like constellation, preparing to begin his weaving with thinner more willingly bendable reeds.
All along while our old neighbour worked, his hands, lap, feet and even kneecaps partaking in the process, he would tell us how basket weaving was done. The reeds ought to be picked recently, yet not be too fresh, he said. The rule of thumb was that they needed to sit for at least a couple of days, but no more than a week. The branches he used where the suckers that grew up at the bottom of or from the root system of the olive trees, thus not the fruit producing branches. Early fall was the optimal time, as this was when these branches had grown long enough to be useful. He had cleared them of foliage, though I liked the fact that a few shimmering olive-green leaves remained, making the final product look even more rustic. Manolo also had collected a second type of wooden reeds in a different colour. These were used for contrast and to create patterns, should the artist feel so inclined.
I am not even going to try attempting to explain how the process of basket weaving goes. It suffices to say that it requires the patience of a saint, steel fingers, a willingness to draw blood, an organized mind when it comes to keeping track of moving parts and generally octopus-like abilities to hold onto the two dozen or so multidirectional reeds, while simultaneously whipping the thinner weaving reeds around said sticks and adding new every few turns. All this had to be done while making sure the weaving was tight, so the basket would not become loop sided. It came as no surprise to us that when Manolo had been asked by a local school to show his craft, the students found it too boing to watch and the teacher had complained that her hands hurt. Unfortunately no new basket-weaving students had been borne out of the experiment. Likewise, Manolo’s young grandson Salvador, who had come to spend the afternoon at his grandparents’ house, was not interested in learning from his grandfather either. Therefore, even though my husband and I could hardly be grouped in with the younger generations, we felt it was all the more important to try to learn and document Manolo’s craft, before he too would be gone.
We might have thought that men like Manolo had learned the skills of basket weaving and other crafts from early childhood or that it was just something everybody around here knew in the past, but this was not so. Most discoveries are done by experimentation and this was the case for our neighbour’s basket weaving. It was something he had figured out by himself when a basket had started to unravel and he needed to fix it a few decades back. Likewise, when the grass seat of one of the chairs we sat on had begun to rot, he had pulled the whole matting apart while noticing how it was done, thus being able to reproduce it himself. One could truly say that Manolo was self-taught. He told us that many people in our town used to make their living out of weaving baskets, making brooms, chairs and even creating paint brushes, the latter a very time-consuming work.
While Manolo weaved and my husband watched, I peaked into his basement, finding other treasures he had made, including the traditional straw sandals that people used to wear in Andalucía summer as winter until a generation or two ago. I imagined that such traditional crafts had lots of similarities around the globe, so that for instance African, Native Indian, Aboriginal and Sami basket weaving techniques and material use would have had a lot in common. But those were indigenous cultures and not a reasonably modern society on the European continent today. What surprised me was seeing that some traditional crafts, though undeniably out of fashion were still in practical use here in Southern Spain. I was fairly certain that the street cleaning crews in Málaga and other larger cities in Andalucía had begun using mass-produced plastic brooms. This made it more important than ever that Ronda still managed to keep onto the tradition of broom making, not to peddle to tourists, but as a practical item in daily life on our very streets.
Walking back home from the shops this afternoon, I meet Manolo dressed in a handsome suit, holding his black umbrella and his newly weaved basket. He told me that he was off to pick up fresh farm eggs from Juan Lu’s, the tiny supermarket in the barrio square. Had I not known better or seen the cars parked around him, I would have thought it was a vision from 1917, not 2017…