Just as the humble espadrilles arrived at the haute couture catwalks thanks to Yves Saint Laurent, the fine esparto carpets have made their place in the High Décor thanks to a few great Spanish decorators. Of course, also thanks to the commitment of a few artisans who have kept alive the esparto tradition, which goes back to prehistory.
What is esparto?
Popularly, two species have been called “esparto”: the esparto grass (Stipa tenacissima), also known as “atocha”, and the esparto of Aragon or “albardín” (Lygeum spartum). The term also denotes the fibre obtained from the hard leaves of those grasses.
Esparto grass has never been cultivated, the plant spontaneously grows in “espartales” (or “atochares”) in the southeast of Spain and areas of North Africa. Peasants have always harvested their leaves, limiting their care to remove damaged leaves and old plants, and keep the “espartales” free of other scrub that may have invaded them.
Esparto is a 100% Spanish product. Great decorators recovered this craft when it was nearly to disappear. Living room decorated by Isabel López Quesada.
Esparto grass is a plant of great ecological interest, as it reduces soil erosion and resists drought without problems, even in the full sun. Esparto grass reduces the evaporation of water thanks to its wide top, while its dead leaves act as a sponge, favoring the passage of rainwater to the ground.
Esparto mats and carpets today
When the craft of the “Espartero” was close to become extinct a few decades ago, a handful of artisans recovered this ancient Spanish tradition.
Esparto carpets, like this one by Blasco & Blasco, have reached the most contemporary environments updated with new colors and large formats, without losing their natural qualities. Living room decorated by Belén Domecq for Casa Decor 2016.
Today the esparto carpets are objects of desire, present in beautiful, as we see in all these photos. They have the appeal of handmade things, following traditional techniques. But they have been updated and adapted to the decoration trends: they can be produced in vibrant colours, varying their format and size according to the needs of the space. That’s why every esparto carpet is unique.
All of this without losing the qualities of the esparto fibre: a natural product, 100% ecological, biodegradable and hypoallergenic.
An esparto carpet fits in all styles. This one, by Antonia Molina, in a cherry-colored tone, frames an eclectic dining room decorated by Melián Randolph.
Esparto carpets are easy to clean, and because of their structure, dust always falls under the carpet. Just lift it and sweep it under. They can also be placed outside, always on porches or covered terraces.
Plus: Esparto carpets smells of nature and sea, and leads us to imagine ourselves in the Mediterranean, even in the middle of the city ….
A style dining room totally opposite to the previous one: this one is traditional and Andalucía inspired. A carpet superimposed gives the modern twist. Photo: Nuevo Estilo
What Archeology and History tell us
From the prehistory, uninterruptedly, the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula have used the esparto fibre to elaborate objects that almost have not changed with the time. This is demonstrated by the baskets, ropes and esparto sandals found in the Murciélados Cave of Albuñol (Granada) and dating back to the Neolithic era.
From Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans we have documents that prove the use and exportation of esparto from the Iberian Peninsula, especially to elaborate cordage for the ships.
And the Arabs, who also used objects made of esparto, immediately appreciated their beauty, so they began to use it to decorate their houses and palaces.
From the Neolithic to the present, the esparto has not stopped being used in the Iberian Peninsula. In this room decorated by Luisa Olazábal, an esparto carpet frames the entire living area. Photo: Nuevo Estilo
And to end this historic overview, we go to the Royal Ordinances of the Royal Site of Aranjuez enacted in 1788 by King Charles IV, in which we see the punishment for cutting esparto grass in King lands without permission: 100 public floggings or, if the offender is a nobleman, “four years of exile.”
The most rustic look is given by circular mats, which are made by sewing “pleitas” (esparto strips). Photo: El Mueble
This ordinance reflects the importance that esparto grass had for the Crown. It was also a setback to many humble, landless families who were supported by the collection, manufacture and trade of esparto, as well as for the elderly, poor widows, blind and people with physical problems who could not do other jobs. It was easy to find all them at the doors of their houses, with esparto in their mouths making pleitas (strips of esparto braided in several branches, which sewn with others serve to make different tools, like mats).
How people worked with esparto
As the raw material of the esparto industry has always grown wild and only required few inexpensive tools, it was a home-based, low-cost and low-profit task, an outlet for humble families or unemployed day labourers.
Each family member has their function (as other stories of ethnic fabrics, such as bogolan, which we have on this blog): the man collected esparto, prepared it, sewed and sold the products; the wife weaved the “pleita”, braided the thread to sew, cleaned, packed and stored; children helped to braid and prepare the esparto. Of course, grandparents also contributed according to their possibilities. This work was done in the street, in small groups that created many lifelong friendships and marriages.
A few artisans continue working esparto with traditional techniques, incorporating new colors, as we see in this sample from Blasco & Blasco. These carpets are made to measure in square, rectangular or round shape.
“Esterero”: the specialist in “esteras”
The “estereros” were specialists not only in making “esteras” or esparto carpets, but also in installing them in the houses, as insulation of the cold floor. With a mule loaded with rolls of “esteras”, they went out looking for clients in September and October, hawking the kindness of their products. Each roll was about 80 cm wide and 40 meters long, made of 10 “pleitas” sewn in parallel.
When the “esterero” found a client, he cut the mats needed for each room, sew them, and nail them to the floor with tacks (like a carpet layer). Underneath was placed straw to increase the insulation, often mixed with lavender or thyme as a natural air freshener. Richer customers instead of straw used newspaper. The warehouses were also carpeted to protect the grain from moisture.
This esparto carpet has been made with the most traditional technique, sewing rolls of pleitas each other. Photo: El Mueble
The mats were placed in all types of houses, from the most humble to the manor houses, even in the Royal Palace. Eealthy people asked for the services of the most expert and refined “estereros”, capable of carpet the soils with diverse drawings reaching a high level of sophistication.
In the spring, the esparto carpets were removed, shaken and stored until the winter. A custom that remained in Spain until the mid-twentieth century, when this craft began its decline.
Fortunately, the return to the natural, artisan and ecological products in the last years revitalized the esparto carpets.
Esparto carpets are very easy to clean, and can be placed even in the kitchen. Photo: El Mueble