La Guayabera-Part III
septiembre 24, 2010
By Hilda Luisa Díaz-Perera. 2010, All Rights Reserved.
A bit of sewing
So, the shirt that would become today’s guayabera was probably first made sometime in the XVIII Century. It then developed gradually over the XIX Century, not as a design made by one person, but rather as the result of the many shirt variations existing in the island and the efforts of several seamstresses and tailors who complied with shifts in taste and fashion by adding or deleting features to the original prototype. Someone, we cannot identify who, added the collar. Someone else, who surely possessed very high sewing skills, must have thought of adding the narrow pleats with their miniscule stitches down the front and back of the shirt. Then, at some point during the Cuban wars for independence from 1868 to 1898, the design of the Cuban flag was incorporated onto the back of the guayabera. This idea probably originated from the Cuban insurgents’ habit of wearing Cuban flags, or red and blue handkerchiefs tied together on the backs or fronts of their shirts, along with their religious medals, as a symbol of patriotism. But Spanish authorities declared this practice a form of treason and soon the Spanish soldiers began executing any Cuban insurgent caught wearing a Cuban flag. Some expert hands must have drawn the highly stylized and clever design of the triangle on the shoulder area of the shirt and divided the back into horizontal stripes separated by rows of pleats. A person deft with needle and thread must have sewn the triangle on. One of the angles of this triangle falls very visibly at the top center of the back, as they do on each front canesú or yoke, and on the top of each pocket of an authentic guayabera. Any error in stitching, or failure to align or fold the fabrics properly would cheapen or ruin the piece. It must have been a very patient person who decided to pepper the shirt with its twenty-seven tiny buttons, and was then willing to sew them on and make 27 buttonholes, all by hand! Finally somebody must have noticed the wear and tear the flaps were always under and decided to reinforce the bottom edges and side openings. Most writers agree that the traditional guayabera owes much of its success and beauty, not surprisingly, to shirt makers and seamstresses of the Sancti Spiritus area and of another town nearby called Zaza del Medio. I would like to comment that it is indeed a pity that users who buy guayaberas are unaware of the sewing skills that were required to finally arrive at the design of the guayabera as we know it today. Its early evolution took place in the absence of the precision sewing instruments available to us. I was taught to sew by my grandmother, who learned the craft as a young girl working with her father, a Spanish tailor who established his shop in the city of Havana in the 1920’s. Among many other sewing skills, she taught me how to make tiny buttonholes by hand. It is a painstakingly slow, careful process that of making tiny stitches that must fall one after the other in a horizontal row to secure the fabric underneath. One hand crunches over the small needle and thread; the other must hold the opening still, in order to avoid stretching at the edges of the cut fabric, in this case, fine linen, which, with the well defined warp and woof of natural fibers, ravels easily and would render a sagging and crooked buttonhole. I must say I never qualified, for lack of patience and dexterity, to make twenty-seven of those buttonholes in a row! I’m glad my grandmother also taught me Math!
The final touch came after the guayabera was finished. Experienced pressers where required to press the seams, pleats, buttonholes and folds into place. Later, when the guayabera had to be washed, a home-made starch was concocted from boiling water and grated yucca that was then strained and allowed to cool. The starch was more or less diluted with water depending on the user’s preference. The guayabera would be dipped into the mixture once or twice and then hung to dry. After it dried, the laundress would sprinkle water on the stiff sun-dried shirt and then wrap into a bundle until it was time to press it. I wonder if Ramón Puig uses Niagara starch today… I do!