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Textiles played an important role in Andean society. Textile arts were extremely labor intensive and required extraordinary skill. A single tunic might be made from 6 to 9 miles of different colored thread. 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.

Sacred fabrics were also for important persons who were buried and wrapped in elaborately woven and embroidered mummy bundles and were meant to accompany the wearer to the next world. Gravesites were located in the coastal dunes, which are the world's driest coastal desert. This was the main reason that Andean textiles were so well preserved, with some stretching back to 3000 BCE. Many 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.

These ancient textiles were created with a very high technological and intellectual point of view and were very sophisticated. One piece often incorporated several techniques. Yet, these complex Andean fabrics were made on a primitive backstrap loom, which is usually attached to a tree, or on the basic frame loom. The weaver's had a very modest basket with implements such as picks and bobbins wound with camelid and cotton thread.

These early sophisticated textiles are found in mummy bundles from the Paracas Peninsula, which date from about 500-200 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 of animals, transformation and communication between this world and the spiritual world were probably the intention of the composite human/animal images.

These ancient textiles are surprisingly complex as the design may be of an orderly and repetitive bird design on a solid background—but no two images are alike. The artist created many small variations of form and color in each of these figures, giving an arresting visual richness. An overall image seems geometric, yet its interior details are fluid curving lines. The artist could have chosen a simpler weaving technique, but chose the painstaking and time consuming method of embroidery to create these rounded and endless forms.

As the tradition spanned the Early Horizon period (1400-500BCE) through the intermediate cultures of the Huari and Nasca periods, and then continuing on to the Spanish Colonial Period (1532-1821CE) the techniques moved from embroidery to tapestry weaving, and made a shift to abstraction. The Huari weaving is a very bold graphic design with abstracted figures of vertical ribbon-like forms of greater complexity. The intermediate period then evolves into a stark, minimalist aesthetic of the Inca. The works of the Spanish Colonial Period 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 coat of arms and Hapsburg eagles, but the Andean tendency to flatten and the abstract symbolic flora and fauna are still present.


History of Ancient Peruvian Textiles


Peruvian Alpaca Fiber

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. Peruvian alpaca is even rarer than cashmere.

Alpacas are a cousin to the llama, were domesticated thousands of years ago in the Peruvian Andes. The alpaca graze at elevations of 10,000 to 14,00 feet in the harsh altiplano regions of Peru. The 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.These beautiful, gentle animals are sheared every other year before the beginning of the warm and rainy season. The native Andean herdsmen tend these animals high on the altiplano and yield about eight pounds of fleece per animal.


Peruvian Pima Cotton

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 handwashed or dry cleaned, is practical and easy to maintain and will last through many years of use.

See the special interest link for textile tours to Peru.

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Cultural Expeditions Peru offers:

Customized luxury group tours to visit Peru's textile production methods and the history of textiles in Peru.

Travel to Peru's Spanish and Andean history, textile arts and culture.

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