Jul 26, 2017

Atelier Alberdi
en route for
the basque country

Mathilde Clément
Atelier Alberdi

Photo Credit : Atelier Alberdi

Making a traditional Basque makhila, an elegant and precious walking stick, requires an ancestral know-how that the Atelier Alberdi, based in Irun, has been one of the rare workshops to continue to use and develop for generations. A symbol of the Basque culture, the makhila is a walking partner for life and is usually gifted as a sign of respect. But it also serves for protection, as in the shaft hides a blade: a self-defense option that was very popular in the 17th century!

Photo credits: Atelier Alberdi 

In 1980, Iñaki Alberdi realized that the tradition of creating and making makhilas was still flourishing in the French Basque country, while it was disappearing on the Spanish side of the border as the country was facing dictatorship at the time. For that reason he chose the makhila as his trade, however unusual, and dedicated a large part of his life to it. As a child he would witness his father and uncles lovingly sculpting wood in the family workshop founded in 1948, after the war. Since then, the Alberdi makhilas have been passed to many famous hands.

Photo credits : Atelier Alberdi 

Today, Benat Alberdi, Iñaki’s son, is his family’s know-how gatekeeper as he takes on the workshop after his father’s departure from the business. “When my father retired, I was working in an office and it pained me to see this unique trade die. We are the only craftsmen in the Spanish Basque country to offer a truly artisanal makhila. Even if I didn’t start in the workshop, I learned the craft by watching my father and, when I was a boy, anytime I would want to make a little money, my father would open the doors to his workshop. I learned the trade without even realizing it.”

Photo credits: Atelier Alberdi 

The makhilas are made with carefully chosen leather, wood and quality steel. Horn is the only material that is not treated in the shop but bought in Bretagne. Working the wood is the most important part of the process. Come spring, the craftsmen roam the mountains to find wild medlar wood, a tree that grows very slowly but whose wood is both resistant and supple. They choose branches that they slit with wave-like patterns, however leaving them attached to the tree. At the beginning of winter, they come back, chop the slit branches and dry them in an oven to harvest their bark. The slits transform into real ornamentation as the bark dries from 7 to 10 years before being used. “It is very gratifying to know that our work brings another brick to the Basque culture”.

“I would really like my daughter to pick up the trade (…) but if I make makhilas today, it’s also because my father never pressured me into it. He just showed me the ropes, and showed me that he was happy, that he was doing dignified work.”


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Mathilde Clément

Mathilde Clément

Made in Clamart. Passionate about art history, Mathilde thrives in creative environments, with a special affinity for the worlds of textile and object design. She puts her pen at the service of the valorization of crafts and materials, in order to bring to the attention of the general public the meaning and the work of artisans and designers from all around the world.

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