PRINT December 1977

Technique and Meaning: The Example of Andean Textiles

A CONSIDERATION OF THE TECHNICAL excellence of both pre-Columbian and contemporary fabrics from Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador was the focus of a recent exhibition entitled “Warp-Patterned Weaves of the Andes” originating at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. last spring and subsequently traveling to the Center for Inter-American Relations in New York from September 20th to November 13th. Anne P. Rowe, Curator of New World Textiles for the Textile Museum, organized the show and wrote the catalogue.

The exhibition itself raised a number of questions about the cultural conditions in which the textiles were made, both in the pre-Hispanic past and in the ethnographic present, as well as about the relationship of the textiles to recent painting, even while its mounting and its catalogue operated within severely restricted limits. Ms. Rowe isolated a particular type of textile—warp-patterned weavings—from the repertory of Andean fabrics in order to analyze its structural components and its technical refinements. Her specific intention was to describe and clarify the variety of fabric structures and styles that are encompassed under the term “warp-patterned” or “warp-faced,” that is, fabrics whose surface is dominated by the warp rather than (as more commonly) the weft.

The warp is the vertical set of threads initially put on the loom before the actual weaving process can begin. The weft is inserted over and under the warps horizontally in the weaving process. Large-scale mock-up “constructions” of yarn appeared as wall labels beside textiles of corresponding technique (they were also included in the catalogue). They illustrate various warp-patterning methods, including warp ikat, discontinuous warps, supplementary warps, complementary warp-weaves, double weaves, gauze, and warp twining, as well as some variations of these. Rowe’s point is that a wide variety of effects is achieved with each of these techniques, depending on such factors as the colors and yarns used and the scale and character of the designs. Thus, for example, we were intended to see that two very different-looking textiles are the results of a similar technical process in the weaving.

In her selection of fabrics, Rowe eschewed esthetic appeal in favor of demonstrating clarity of structure. Actually, by choosing to focus solely on warp-patterned textiles, she automatically excluded most of the pre-Hispanic textiles with obvious iconographic interest, since weft-faced textiles—tapestry, brocade—and embroidered fabrics are generally richer in figural design. The exhibition nevertheless included several examples of weft-patterned textiles. In all, there were some 40 major textiles and several fragments on display.

The show’s concentration on warp-patterned textiles effectively demonstrated the remarkable continuity of the Andean weaving tradition from the pre-Columbian era to the present. Textiles are the only artifacts that embody such a cultural continuity, spanning roughly 4,500 years. The earliest Peruvian textiles utilizing warp-patterning techniques go back to the Preceramic period (c. 2500 B.c.), and similar types of warp-patterning techniques are still in use today in Peru and Bolivia. An excellent early example of warp-patterning in the exhibition comes from the site of Ocucaje on the south coast of Peru and dates to the Early Horizon (c. 1400–400 B.C.) Interestingly, it is the warp-patterning techniques that have been preserved, while weft-dominated tapestry weaving died out at the end of the Colonial period. The former was mainly associated with the popular, nonaristocratic weaving tradition in pre-Columbian Peru, while the latter was highly valued as an aristocratic status item in ancient times.

Among the present day survivals of pre-Columbian techniques, “complementary warp-patterning” is unquestionably the most important, according to Rowe. The designs produced by the complementary warp technique are restricted to some variation of a zigzag surrounded by or enclosing “eyes” or small bordered rectangular forms. The particular variety of complementary warp used by the Inca (c. A.D. 1470–1534) is preserved only in the Cotabamba region of Peru, but many similar complementary warp textiles are still found in the Cuzco area and elsewhere. Other pre-Columbian warp-faced techniques survive, but much less extensively. One example, called “discontinuous warps dovetailed,” was visible on a striking ceremonial cloth from the Cuzco area. The color play of bright pinks, blues, greens, and maroons produces in this cloth a neonlike intensity never found in pre-Columbian textiles: such phosphorescent colors are the result of the introduction of chemical dyes in recent years. Other new materials and looms have been introduced, but the fact that the native tradition is still present and recognizable in shawls, bags, belts, and ponchos woven and worn today, so many centuries after the Spanish conquest, is something to ponder.

The discontinuity of tradition was also brought out in the complex mounting of this show. Whereas in most cases pre-Columbian textiles are more finely woven than contemporary ones, Rowe did make the point that certain post-Columbian specimens are more refined than their ancient predecessors: for example, warp ikat decorated textiles. She further indicated that certain warp techniques, such as “supplementary warp float patterning,” are rare in the ancient record but common in contemporary textiles, while still other recent techniques are completely different from, and unrelated to, any known pre-Columbian examples.

As a technical study of its subject, the catalogue will be an important reference work in the future. Its impressive documentation reveals Rowe’s mastery of the extensive literature on pre-Hispanic Peruvian textiles. And the usefulness of the catalogue is enhanced by its many illustrations, which reproduce all of the fabrics exhibited in Washington and New York and a good many not displayed as well. In introductory chapters Ms. Rowe outlines the geographical and chronological setting and describes looms. Subsequent chapters are each devoted to a discussion of an individual type of warp-patterned technique or structure. Accompanied by diagrammatic constructions, each structure is carefully described, along with its variations, and the regions and cultures in which it is found are noted. These chapters detailing the various types of warp-patterning are Rowe’s major contribution; the introductory material is available elsewhere, as Rowe herself acknowledges.1

In her conclusion Rowe moves beyond a detailed technical description by drawing inferences about the chronology and development of warp-patterning techniques and the geographic and cultural areas in which they are found, with an emphasis on the pre-Columbian period. Such a typological method, involving detailed classification of form and decoration, has been used effectively with pre-Hispanic Peruvian ceramics, in an effort to construct chronological sequences or stylistic seriations and to draw from them inferences about cultural change. However, the kind of precision possible with excavated ceramics, which have a known provenance and/or stratigraphic position, is not possible for textiles, which have an uneven distribution and poor provenance documentation. Most known pre-Hispanic textiles come from lootings rather than excavations, while there is a comparable absence of firm data on contemporary handicrafts. As a result, Rowe has been able to sketch a very rough general picture of the warp-patterning technique as it evolved over time in the Andean area, while suggesting some possible cultural connections.

To elucidate its formal concerns the exhibition might have been arranged in a clearer and less ambiguous fashion. For all the lavish attention devoted to the explication of textile structure, and the careful curatorial constructions demonstrating warp-patterning techniques, it remained unclear just how the different techniques affect the textile design itself in many cases. Or, put another way, the precise relationship of these different techniques to the appearance of the finished textiles was obscure. Moreover, too many fine distinctions were made. Not only were different types of warp-patterning techniques presented, but also different subtypes or varieties of each type of weave. Thus, for example, a number of variants of complementary warp weave were presented, including three-color and three-span “floats.” The result was often that main points were lost in a welter of complex details. Comparisons and contrasts between fabrics that were suggested in the wall labels (and catalogue) were difficult to follow, especially when they referred only to partial aspects of textiles. A number of weft-patterned textiles were surely also meant to be compared structurally and contrasted with the warp-faced textiles, but their presence was confusing rather than enlightening. (It is equally unclear why two examples of weft-patterned textiles are illustrated in color in the catalogue.)

But organizing this exhibition solely on the basis of technique obscured the larger reality behind these textiles. The show omitted any consideration of their temporal, spatial, expressive, functional, and cultural context.2 Although the catalogue sketches the development of warp-patterning techniques through time and locates the geographic areas in which they occur, these coordinates were ignored in the display of the material. Textiles that are geographically and culturally widely disparate were grouped together in order to stress their structural similarities or differences. Thus, a full appreciation of the remarkable refinement of a complex warp-patterning technique on an early textile from Ocucaje is blurred because the fabric is juxtaposed with examples of similar structure from different periods. Also unnoted (in either the exhibition or catalogue) were the extraordinary figural motifs adorning this particular textile, including the double- or diamond-headed serpent with interlaced body—which is one of the most ancient and important symbolic images of the supernatural in Andean iconography.

Even within its circumscribed limits, the exhibition might have accommodated a visual presentation of the types of clothing worn in pre-Hispanic and modern times, so that the function of these fabrics might have been somewhat clarified. An explanation or, at least, some reference to the absence of tailoring on all these garments or to the drabness of the highland setting might have provided a measure of the importance attached to the ornamentation of cloth in the Andes. More photographs and illustrations of Indians wearing these textiles would also have made the presentation less abstract.

On some level, the contemplation of ancient Peruvian fabrics is sure to evoke in the modern beholder romantic notions of, and perhaps even nostalgic yearnings for, a simpler culture whose inhabitants were sheltered by a unified world-view. The aura of archaeology that infuses many of these fragile fabrics, which miraculously have survived for thousands of years, confers on them the special authenticity of ancient and primitive artifacts, while contemporary ethnographic textiles have a similar appeal as esthetically idealized symbols of primitive simplicity. The modern pieces are the admired products of folk craftsmen and -women imagined to be living in less complex cultures, of people likely to be glimpsed (at one’s own leisure) on vacation travels. An exhibition willing to explore the institutional and cultural framework of these artifacts might deepen and extend our perception of them beyond such accustomed attitudes. It might, for example, reveal the reasons why cloth has had—and, to a lesser extent, continues to have—such value and importance in the Andes.

The attention lavished on fabrics, the fine quality and sheer quantity of weaving, goes far beyond the everyday needs of the Andean people to keep warm (at 10,000 feet), or even the important psychological and ornamental functions of clothing.3 In the Inca world cloth had great social, economic, political, religious, and symbolic value; in fact, it was probably the single most highly prized commodity. It functioned as the main ceremonial good, highlighting all crisis points in the life-cycle of both common and highborn people. Gifts of new garments were bestowed at the feast for a child’s weaning, at the initiation of boys and girls at puberty, at marriage ceremonies as the bride-price presented by the groom, and, perhaps most importantly, on death.

Dressed in new clothes and accompanied by additional garments (e.g. sandals, bags, headdresses), the dead were placed in the grave. The use of garments as mortuary offerings extended back at least 4,000 years before the Incas all over the Andean area. Actually, most of the garments that have survived from the pre-Hispanic era came from burials on the desert coast of Peru, where mummies wrapped in multiple layers of cloth have been preserved by the dryness of the climate, few burials surviving in the highland area. This custom accounts for the great difference in size among the pre-Hispanic garments in the exhibition, for example, a miniature poncho dating to the Inca period, measuring 15 by 23 inches, and a large tunic with padded sleeves from the north or north-central coast which dates to the Late Intermediate period (c. A.D. 1000–1470), measuring 46 by 66 inches. The little poncho may have been a symbolic mortuary offering, perhaps for a powerful or royal dignitary, since there is some evidence to suggest that the checkerboard design was not just an abstract pattern but an emblem identifying the high office or clan of the wearer. The big tunic probably served as the outer layer of the mummy wrapping of an important personage, perhaps a military hero who might have required protective padding in battle. In the absence of any reference to these burial practices, the size differences between these garments are simply mystifying.

Even after their burial, certain ancestral dead were periodically exhumed, dressed again in new clothes, and carried around in processionals—a custom that particularly affronted the sensibilities of the Spanish priest-chronicler who recorded its existence.4 In addition, cloth and llamas—whose hair was also used for fiber—were the principal sacrificial offerings of the Inca burned at local shrines on all important religious occasions. Standing behind all of these ceremonial, mortuary, and sacrificial offerings was the enormous investment of labor by individuals and the community, including the raising of cotton, the shearing of the alpaca and llama, the carding, spinning, dyeing, doubling of yarn, the weaving itself, and, often, the elaborate embroidery or appliqué of the textiles.

No political, military, social or religious event was complete without the exchange, bestowal or sacrifice of textiles.5 The autocratic Inca state was run on the basis of reciprocal arrangements between citizen and government. The two main economic obligations of the citizen were to work the lands of the state and to weave cloth for the state and church. Cloth woven by citizens for the state was stored in vast quantities in civic and ecclesiastical warehouses, which were located throughout the empire. These stores of garments were used as an instrument of power relations by the Inca ruler: to clothe the army, to make offerings to favored or rebellious relatives, and to give grants to newly conquered peoples, who were then obliged to reciprocate in kind. They were also used for ceremonial sacrifices on state calendric festivals, and distributed as gifts to those in attendance at important state occasions, such as the imperial accession. State and church also shared in the status consumption and display of textiles. Certain fabrics of exquisite fineness (and probably also of particular design) were reserved for the exclusive use of the Inca king. Likewise, great golden and silver idols of the sun in temples were dressed in the finest vestments and smothered in blankets. Although the latter were destroyed by the Spanish, a number of miniature idols of gold and silver similarly swaddled in cloth have come to light.

Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the high value of textiles among the Inca was the function of the “Chosen Women” in the social system. Known in Quechua as the acllacuna, and also called the “Weaving Women” or “Virgins of the Sun,” they were a kind of religious order of celibate nuns specially selected and trained from a young age to be dedicated to weaving. At the same time, they constituted a personal retainer group of craftswomen of the Inca king.

The continuities and discontinuities of Andean weaving techniques from pre-Hispanic to contemporary times are well demonstrated in the present exhibition. By the same token, there are clearly continuities and discontinuities in the cultural conditions behind the production of these textiles. Although new clothing styles were introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, certain traditional costume elements have been retained to this day. Survivals of some of the ancient customs involving the use of clothing as a marker of life crisis rites have also been reported in recent times. For example, until the second decade of this century, pairs of youths wearing new cloth from head to foot ran ceremonial races in Cuzco; and special clothes are still woven for young men assuming religious office on an island in Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.6

The description affixed to the contemporary textile at the entrance to the New York exhibition projected a traditional picture of an endlessly spinning and weaving contemporary peasant woman. It estimated a total production time of over 600 hours for one textile of average size and quality, which was sold for $15 after a three-day walk to the nearest market. The provocative, isolated set of facts suggests how useful it would be to know more of the actual social, economic, and cultural bases of the production and distribution of contemporary Andean textiles. Apparently, women nonspecialists weave garments on a piecemeal basis, in addition to their normal household tasks, to supplement the family income derived from farming. But men also weave, according to one of the photographs in the show. Do they tend to be specialized craftsmen, as in pre-Hispanic times?

There are many indications that the traditional picture is rapidly changing. Not only have new materials—such as sheep’s wool, chemical dyes, and even acrylic fiber—been introduced, but also new shortcut methods of production, resulting in coarser fabrics (although not necessarily less intricate designs) with new hot colors. In the marketplace, a premium is placed on older, finer goods that may have been in an Indian’s family for many years. The majority of the textiles produced is no longer directed toward a native market, but to a tourist or export trade, or, interestingly, to the middle classes in the Andean cities who crave an ethnic identification with their disappearing past. The demand for these goods far exceeds the supply, and it is fostered by shows such as this one held thousands of miles away.

There is, moreover, a curious correspondence between the esthetic represented especially by recent color-field painting and the esthetic of these Andean textiles. This painting sets a premium on reductionism, simplification, and the suppression of all such nonessentials as associative, textural, perspectival, and plastic elements, in order that the painting might refer only to itself. The aim was to rid art of of all but a narrow range of pictorial considerations, stressing the relationship between a few (often in one way or another geometric) forms and a minimum number of colors in a single overwhelming image or total field, rather than a relational “composition” of the old sort. The shape and proportion of the canvas were allowed to determine the kind of structure it would contain. Paintings based on unvarying elements—modules, grids, parallel bands, bilateral symmetry—could be worked out in advance within a system. The colors of these fields were close in value, and often stained into the unsized canvas, exposing its physical weave. The color-saturated fabric became like dyed cloth, with its “threadedness” and “wovenness” appearing to belong to the color itself. Color staining and other technical procedures were at the core of color-field painting.7

Color-field painting upheld such anti-expressionist values as coolness, muteness, and detachment. An anonymous, craftlike quality, with little trace of the individual artist, was characteristic of such work. This attitude was in accord with the stress on technical skill and use of restricted technical means. Indeed, a craftlike approach also extended in the direction of the marketplace: a cooperative, even collaborative, stance being taken in relation to the disseminators of such art and also to customers (who often enough were giant corporations). This same approach linked up with the abandonment of the notion of a single unique masterpiece or final art production in favor of the creation of a point of departure or prototype for a series of things of the same conception. As Alloway has noted, in comparable terms, the run of the image or the series constitutes a system, and thus the meaning of the work is not complete in each single painting, but only in a series or set of them.8

An increased interest in handcrafted textiles is no doubt connected with the theories adhering to such recent painting. Thus the Andean textiles in the exhibition may appear to be an embodiment of values espoused by color-field painters; their intrinsic qualities include a woven effect, absolute allover flatness, bands of color, narrow range of elements, determined shapes, fields of close-valued color, bilateral symmetry, regularity, repetition, open, undyed areas of fabric, muteness and anonymity. As craft items, they are not unique objects, and as archaeological specimens they are generally considered in sequential terms. It is even possible for color-field painters to have found a stimulus for their own search for new forms of expression in textiles like these.

Like color-field painting, these fabrics were exhibited as beautiful works of abstract art, totally divorced from their cultural meaning or function. Not only were they mounted as pristine objects set within plexiglass frames, but, in one or two instances, the names of craftswomen who created the fabrics were singled out for attention—like the names of specific painters. There seems to be some reciprocity and mutual influence at work here, with the modernist sensibility having an impact on the treatment of traditional craft items and vice versa. Maybe it is also no accident that the characteristic frame of explanation for both color-field painting and Peruvian textiles is a purely formalist approach preoccupied by description of technique, structure, and process, and avoiding larger meaning, such as an explanation of the experiential framework, the social, political, and economic conditions in which these works were created. And, just as established patterns of ornament on Peruvian textiles—such as the checkerboard pattern on the miniature poncho cited above—are emerging as signifiers of rank, power, office, or clan, so also one suspects that the emblematic canvases of the color-field painters were not so free of associative meaning or as entirely self-referential as was usually supposed.



1. See Junius B. Bird, “Techniques.” Part 3 of Andean Culture History by W. Bennett and J. Bird. second ed., American Museum of Natural History. New York, 1960, pp. 183–222: Irene Emery, The Primary Structures of Fabrics: An Illustrated Classification, The Textile Museum. Washington, 1966; Raoul d’Harcourt, Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques, edited by G. Denny and C. Osborne, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1962.

2. The exhibition was basically the same in Washington and New York, although there was some variation in the selection of textile specimens in each location. Another difference was the addition in New York of a third example to a couple of photographs of Andean Indians weaving or wearing traditional clothing, and a placard affixed to a contemporary textile at the entrance to the exhibition detailing the labor time involved in the manufacture of the textile and the earnings from its sale.

3. John V. Murra, “Cloth and Its Functions in the Inca State,” American Anthropologist, vol. 64, no. 4. 1962. p. 712. I have drawn heavily on this article in my discussion of the value of cloth in the Inca empire. It is one of the only articles in the literature to explore the problem of meaning in relation to textiles.

4. Father Pablo Joseph Arriaga, The Extirpation of Idolatry, trans. from Spanish by L. C. Keating, University of Kentucky Press, 1968, pp. 27–28, 56–57.

5. Murra, p. 722.

6. Ibid., pp. 712–13.

7. Lawrence Alloway, “Systemic Painting,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. G. Battcock, New York, 1968, p. 50.

8. Ibid., p. 56.