Textiles played an important role in Andean society since at least 3000 BCE. Textile arts were extremely labor intensive, required extraordinary skill, and consumed a vast amount of materials. A single tunic might require between 6 to 9 miles of different colored fibers.
In ancient times, textiles not only conveyed status for the living, also for the dead. Important people were buried in “sacred fabrics,” elaborately woven and embroidered mummy bundles meant to accompany the wearer to the next world. Fortunately for archaeologists and textile scholars and artists, many Andean textiles survived in graves, some from 3000 BCE, because many grave sites were located in the coastal dunes, the world's driest coastal desert.
Some fabrics were also created for ritual sacrifice and were burned as offerings to the sun (Inti - Inca sun god) who was considered the highest of the celestial powers.
Experts who have studied ancient Peruvian textiles say they were very sophisticated. One piece often incorporated several techniques. Yet, these complex Andean fabrics were made on primitive backstrap looms, which were usually attached to a tree, or on the basic frame loom. The weavers had a very modest basket with implements such as picks and bobbins wound with camelid and cotton thread.
The textiles found in mummy bundles from the Paracas Peninsula date from about 500 BCE. The images on these textiles were symbolic rather than representational. The artist was representing spiritual or intellectual meaning, not trying to describe a literal truth. Birds probably were symbolic of the spiritual realm and flight for the deceased Reverence for animals, and transformation and communication between this world and the spiritual world were probably the meaning of the composite human/animal images.
Textile techniques progressed from embroidery to tapestry weaving, and made a shift to abstraction. Huari weaving is known for its bold graphic design with abstracted figures of vertical ribbon-like forms of greater complexity.
In ancient times, textiles were valued more than gold or silver, unlike the precious metal the Spaniards coveted, and signified the wearer's high social status and political power. The Incas gave textiles as the highest form of tribute gift.
The works of the Spanish Colonial Period, after 1532 CE, are a synthesis of indigenous and European styles. Circular compositions are prominent rather than the horizontal reorganization of the Andean aesthetic. While the pre-Columbians used camelid, cotton and even feathers, the Europeans introduced silk and linen threads and forms and shaded areas began to be used to create a three-dimensional effect. There are European coats of arms and Hapsburg eagles, but the Andean tendency to flatten and the abstract symbolic flora and fauna were still present in many weavings of this period.
These drawings were made by Guaman Poma who was a direct descendent of an eminent indigenous conqueror. Poma was a Quechua noble man known for his chronicle in which he denounced the ill treatment of the native peoples of the Andes by the Spanish after conquest. These are taken from his illustrated chronicle, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno of 1615 when he was an old man.
Peruvians weavers have traditionally used five different fibers for their craft, pima cotton, and hair from four different animals, vicuna, alpaca, llama, and guanaco, all members of the camelid family. The Spanish introduced wool from sheep into the weaving craft in the 1500s.
Introduced into Peruvian weaving by at least 300 BCE, vicuna fiber is harvested from the smaller wild ancestor of both the llama and alpaca. Not only is the vicuna the national animal of Peru, it was protected by law under Inca rule and is also currently protected by the Peruvian government. Vicunas produce extremely fine wool, which is rare because vicunas can be shorn only every three years. Their fibers are most highly prized for weavers.
During Inca times, alpaca fiber was a status symbol and was prized as a trade item. The finer grades of alpaca were reserved for the Inca nobility.
Alpacas are cousins to the llama. They were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Peruvian Andes. Alpacas graze at elevations of 10,000 to 14,00 feet in the harsh altiplano regions of Peru. Alpaca hair is extremely fine (between 16 and 30 microns in width, length from 8 to 12 cm). The fiber is smooth, velvety and very light weight and soft. This camelid fiber is stronger and more durable than wool, yet is warmer and lighter in weight. The first clipping of the shearling is called baby alpaca and is extremely soft and featherweight and even more highly prized. This fleece dyes to fabulous colors and grows naturally in 40 shades from ivory to black, with all the greys and browns in between. Alpaca yarns do not contain lanolin so it does not repel water. These beautiful, gentle animals are sheared every other year before the beginning of the warm and rainy season and yield about eight pounds of fleece per animal. To the right are scarves made of baby alpaca yarn.
The ancestor of the llama and the alpaca, Guanacos have double coats of hair like llamas, one outer coat, the guard hair, and one inner coat which is soft. The outer coat is coarse, and allows them to shed water and debris. The outer coat produces scratchy, but durable yarns. It is suitable for making rugs or outdoor blankets. The inner coat provides softer fibers to make garments and accessories.
Pima cotton is prized all around the world as a luxury fiber and is called 'gamuza' by the Peruvians, meaning suede in Spanish because of its silky soft feel and brilliant luster. The silky soft feel is a result of the excellent growing conditions in the northern coastal valleys where it is cultivated. Peruvian pima cotton is harvested by hand, resulting in a brilliant white shade that can be easily dyed. Cotton harvested industrially leaves scratchy impurities, which affect smoothness and creates a yellowish color to the fiber. This fiber is classified as luxury because of its 1 3/8" length, ordinary cottons measure half to three quarters as much in length. This fabric can be easily hand washed or dry cleaned, is practical and easy to maintain and will last through many years of use.
Our Textile Tours
Cultural Expeditions sees the textile arts as a window into the soul of Peru. From weaving personal items such as tunics, dresses, rugs, and mummy wraps in ancient times, to the contemporary weaving of blankets, scarfs, and sweaters, and other personal items, Peruvian textiles are the most human of the arts. They provide warmth, color, status, protection. A sense of touch. The color and beauty of Peruvian textiles demonstrate how art was and is interwoven into even the most simple aspects of everyday life.
Textile tours with Cultural Expeditions can connect you to museums, workshops, markets, studios so you can see and experience these aspects of Peruvian culture deeply.
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Birds & Orchids
Peruvian Weaving, Tapestries and Andean Art
Located in the Master Page