Cultural Craft Profile: Peruvian Textiles

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Peru: the monumental Andes mountain range, Machu Picchu, and herds of alpaca come to mind. But what most people don’t know is that Peru has one of the longest continuous textile records in history.

There have been elaborate fabrics found in western South America dating over 5,000 years. The illustrious colors, patterns, and styles that mark Peruvian culture have found their ways into fashion and decor throughout the world.

Textiles play an important role in Andean society. In ancient times, textiles were more valued than silver or gold; they signified social status and political power, were used to construct woven-fiber boats, and have maintained the expectations of extraordinary skill as a sacred crafts today. Though silks and cottons are used, alpaca wool textiles are unique to Andean culture.

The Peruvian weaving process begins with the women and children of rural villages. They tend to sheep, llamas, and alpaca, shearing them annually. What’s not used for weaving in the village is sold in bulk.

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A woman and her alpaca; photo by Ashley Cunningham

It is sold to artisans, such as weaving cooperatives like Association Puca Turpay and Association Ticllay Huarmi, who find livelihood in producing Peruvian alpacha textiles. The fine, raw wool is spun into useful threads using a drop spindle called a puska. This step also known as puskay. Puskay is primarily a feminine occupation, and is a huge part of the indigenous women’s society and organization.

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Spinning alpaca wool; photo by Trommer photography

The threads are combined, a process called k’anity, and made into balls and skeins. They are then washed with natural plant detergents, such as Sacha Paraqay (a root), and processed through natural dyes.

Though a fading tradition, using natural dyes such as cochineal insects and Ch’illca leaves is still a practiced art. The yarn is boiled with the dying materials for any given amount of time, depending on the desired colors or intensities. In Andean culture, the brighter the colors, the better.

Ch'illca is commonly used for green. Collpa, a mineral found in the jungle, is also used.

Ch’illca is commonly used for green. Collpa, a mineral found in the jungle, is also used.

After being dyed, dried, and re-spun, the yarn is ready to be woven! Different looms are used, including the 4-post and back-strap loom. Weaving consists of a grid-pattern of thread; the warp and the weft.

Warp-faced weaving, or dominance of the “y-axis” on the grid, is the  common technique. The warp determines the color and pattern while the weft is more of a supporting “axis.” The weft is beaten down by a pointed bone tool called the ruki.

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The artistry and expertise that go into weaving symbols and patterns are as limitless as the patterns themselves. Animals, people, the sun, flowers. The symbols are ancient and represent a unique ideology. Sometimes the images are honoring Pachamama (Mother Earth), or simply tell a story that only the individual weaver can explain. Whatever the story, each woven masterpiece is beautiful and one of a kind.

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