In the prologue, the midwife mentions her esparto plaiting, and says her thirteen-strand plaits are as good as cash. Does she literally mean she can ‘spend’ them like money?
Until recent times, weaving with esparto was a popular rural pastime. This grey-green needle grass (Stipa Tenacissima) grows wild in southern Spain and North Africa. When woven, it is strong and hard wearing, and has been widely used for making articles such as sandals, hats, belts, panniers, halters, mats … and eventually, those woven donkeys beloved of early tourists!
Before use, the grass has to be wetted to soften it – and sometimes it is also beaten on a special rounded stone placed outside the house for this purpose. Even after softening, it is tough and sharp. Weaver’s hands often became calloused and injuries were common.
The strands of grass are first plaited into long cords, which can then be used to make a variety of articles. And yes, in rural villages, basic plaits were once accepted as currency in shops.