A woven fez with feathers from the Inkaic Period

Andean Textiles

September 11 to November 11

Relbunium, beetles and other weaving materials

Cloth production in the Andes mountain region of Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile dates back to at least 2,500 B.C. During this time, textiles were made from various vegetal fibers like cotton. However, by 1,500 B.C., animal fibers—lama, alpaca, and other American camelids—were in general use. Other materials like bast (inner tree bark fibers) and other similarly tough materials were used for cordage (string, rope) and netting. Human hair was also used, albeit rarely, to make fine cordage for masks and effigies.

By 1,000 BC, virtually every known weaving technique was in use, as was every available natural dye or coloring agent. (For example, red dye was made by either boiling the Relbunium plant or by crushing cochineal beetles.) Although dyeing spun yarn was the norm, un-spun material like cotton and wool, could be dyed. Additionally, many fabrics were decorated with painted designs or feathers upon completion. 

Most textiles were created using backstrap looms, which are small, portable and inexpensive. Backstrap looms are also simple and consist only of a few rods, a length of rope, and a strap, which is wrapped around the backside of the weaver—hence the name. The other side of the loom is attached to a tree or post. A long, continuous yarn thread known as a warp is wound around two loom bars. The strap allows the weaver to adjust the tension of the warp by moving back and forth. The warp’s length is limited only by the arm length of the weaver.

When using a backstrap loom, weft yarns are interlaced perpendicularly between warp “threads”. Generally, this weaving method produces four finished edges or selvedges. The completed rectangles or squares of fabric can be combined to form clothing, containers, blankets, and other textiles.

Andean cash

Textile manufacturing was the dominant industry in the Andean highlands. Its importance to Andean people cannot be understated. In a cash-free economy, crafts often embody wealth, especially if everyone understands the relative values of the materials used and the time spent creating the work. In the prehistoric Andes, textiles represented such wealth. For example, cloth was collected as tribute, used to pay taxes, and as barter for other goods.

As a result, a talented weaver could literally “make” money. Unsurprisingly, the most desired wives were women who demonstrated skills in weaving. Today, there is less direct comparison to money, but great prestige is still attached to quality textile works.

Andean Textiles will remain on display until November 11. It will be replaced by Recent Acquisitions (2018) on November 20. [Pictured: Hat, 1470 – 1536. Inkaic Period (Andes Mountains). Gift of Quintus H. and Mary H. Herron. 5″ H x 6.5″ Diam.]