• Introduction

    Textile making is one of the most important technologies ever developed by humans. Textiles perform a variety of utilitarian functions: Among many others, they protect people from the elements and allow them to carry things (in woven bags, for example). Since ancient times, however, textiles also have been used as a medium to transmit ideas about customs, social organization and religion, making them a powerful cultural instrument for representing the ideology of a given group of people.

    Textiles are structures composed of one or more systems of interlaced elements or threads. Traditionally they were made from animal and/or plant fibers, more recently from man-made fibers as well. Textiles can be classified into two main groups, depending on the thread system: The first category includes those made with a single system of threads interlaced in one direction, either horizontally or vertically. The threads can be worked loose or attached to a stretcher. Twisted, braided, looped and knotted textiles fall into this category. Textiles in the second category have a horizontal thread system (weft) interwoven with a vertical one (warp) using a device known as a loom.

    Textiles produced with a single thread system were developed long before those involving two systems. In ancient times, needles or other tools were used to knot or interlace fibers to produce hunting and fishing implements such as nets. The manufacturing of yarn or thread was a decisive advance in textile making, allowing fine, weak and/or short animal hair or plant fibers to be transformed into longer, stronger fibers by twisting or spinning them together using simple implements such as spindles and counterweights.

    The earliest evidence of textiles, dated at 15,000 BCE, was found in the Lascaux caves of France and consists of a fragment of plant fiber cord with three threads twisted together. Representations of similar fiber cords appear some 5000 years earlier, however, associated with the so-called “Paleolithic Venuses”. These figures are depicted with skirts or aprons made of twisted cord bound together. Although the material used to make these textiles is not known, they are thought to have been made of animal tendons or some kind of plant fiber.

    When no material evidence has been preserved, the existence of a textile industry is inferred through discoveries of related artifacts such as needles, counterweights and spindles, or through visual representations such as ceramic art, stone sculpture, rock art and temple wall murals. The earliest examples of this kind of evidence include textile impressions left on ceramic figurines and vessels from the ancient Jomon ceramics of Japan and the earliest American ceramic traditions that emerged in Ecuador 6,000 years ago. In Europe, however, textile instruments such as needles have been found at Upper Paleolithic sites dated between 19,000 and 15,000 BCE. In the Middle East, the tombs at Çatalhöyük dated at 6000 BCE include bodies wrapped in woven blankets. The first crops of flax, a plant whose fibers are used to make thread for textile making, are dated at 8000 BCE. Egyptian textiles were also made using this plant, and multiple discoveries have been dated at around 5500 BCE. Evidence of Chinese silk making, one of the world’s most famous and ancient textile industries, has been dated as early as 5000 to 3000 BCE. This industry was based on the domestication of the silk worm by the Yangshao people who lived on the banks of Yellow River in northwest China.

    In the Americas, especially in the Andean region, textile making was an important and highly developed technology that produced some of the most sophisticated textile traditions in the world. The arid conditions of the Andean coast and the Altiplano have enabled the preservation of much of this fragile artistic legacy; in some areas textile fragments have been discovered that date back 8000 years. Textiles were important to pre-Colombian Andean cultures as medium for representing identity, social hierarchies and civil status, as an instrument of tribute and a symbol of social prestige. This is demonstrated in the oldest known textile finds in this area, which come from the coastal archaeological site of Huaca Prieta, located in the Chicama Valley of northern Peru. The textiles found there, dated at 3000 to 2200 BCE, display animal figures such as felines, serpents and condors, as well as anthropomorphic and other unidentified figures made with yarn of different naturally and artificially dyed colors. Images 3, 4

    These are the earliest examples of Andean textile iconography, a tradition that would continue for the next 4000 years, making woven textiles the medium of choice for artistic and religious expression in the region. The textiles referred to were made of plant fibers and cotton, which has been grown since ancient times on the Peruvian coast. It was not until much later that groups began to make textiles from the hair of the camelids that inhabited the highlands of this region. Its use was limited on the coast, however, indicating that camelid hair yarn was a scarce and probably highly valued commodity.

    These ancient Andean textiles were made using a special instrument, called a loom, to separate the vertical threads (warp) and then interlace them with horizontal ones, called the weft. This interlacing produced a woven textile structure, the most elementary form of which is called “plain weave”. Image 2 Around 1400 BCE, the development of heddle weaving allowed several warp thread systems to be used simultaneously, an important technological advance that streamlined the weaving process enormously and spurred the growth of the textile industry in the Andes. By around 2000 BCE in places such as La Galgada, in the sierra of northern Peru, textile making had developed to include much wider cloth with multiple thread systems, while decorative elements were often reduced to vertical stripes in different colors. The fact that textile makers of this period favored the production of broad woven pieces in plain weave points to the existence of a quicker, more efficient weaving process.

    Later on, the region developed a flourishing industry with groups such as the Paracas culture becoming one of the most prolific textile-making cultures in the Americas. Vestiges of this group’s legacy have been found in several valleys in southern Peru including Pisco, Ica and Nazca. During this period a huge variety of decorative and weaving techniques were developed, the most notable of which was embroidery, which allowed textile artists to produce curved lines to represent figures not only in frontal and profile views but in action positions. These images became more complex over time, foreshadowing the eventual development of the Nazca culture (100 BCE–700 CE) image 14, whose textile tradition displays virtually the entire repertory of techniques and colors available in the Andes at the time. Indeed, many techniques that were common then would disappear as the Nasca culture declined. The techniques developed were used to create fine embroidered textiles with volumetric finishings, representations of anthropomorphic figures and lifelike, multicolored, and curved motifs that would later take on more geometric forms, which were repeated on the cloth to make patterns image 1, 13. The Nazcas also made a variety of accessories for daily use, including sashes, bags, sandals, fans, hats, turban headdresses and headbands, using the same techniques, images 15,16,17.

    Later textile traditions continued to use these techniques and styles, although in the case of the Wari and Inka cultures images 6, 7, tapestry weaving was the preferred mode. Another notable post-Nazca textile industry is that of the Chancay people (1000 to 1430 CE), who lived on the central coast of Peru and produced an unequalled repertoire of fine gauzes, reticulated weaves, brocades and openwork tapestries, as well as funeral masks and 3-dimensional dolls images 8,9,10 . The textiles of the northern Peruvian Chimú culture (900 to 1,400 C.E.) are also worth noting. These featured multi-item ceremonial and funerary outfits made with feather, metallic and volumetric woven appliqués. Images 11,12

    In the Inka Empire textiles were used not only as clothing, decoration and a medium for representing images, but also to keep records and tell stories. The Inka quipu –which means ‘knot’ in the Quechua language– was an implement made from cords that were knotted in different ways to record census and tax information. Spanish historians affirm that they were also used to relate stories, genealogies, poems and songs. Researchers have deciphered some of the ways in which the quipus were used to record quantitative information, but how they were used to record myths and other stories remains a mystery.

    In Meso-America, the development of the pre-Colombian textile industry has been studied primarily through images and representations in other media such as ceramics, stone sculptures and painted murals. Further information has been obtained from descriptions left by the conquistadors and from present-day indigenous traditions. Unfortunately, the prevailing climatic conditions in some regions of Meso-America, especially the high humidity, caused these fragile materials to decompose. However, some direct archeological evidence has been found in caves located in the present-day states of Puebla and Tamaulipas, in south-central and northern Mexico, respectively. These finds include fragments of cords and nets dated between 5000 and 2500 BCE, indicating that this craft developed early in the region. The first loom-woven textiles appear much later, as small items that were usually made on a belt-loom. The more decoratively and technically complex of these early artifacts are assumed to have been worn by leaders, while the simpler items are thought to have been used by ordinary people. These ancient textile artifacts were made primarily of plant fibers, with occasional decorative elements such as feathers or animal hair. Cotton, which had been cultivated since earlier times, was normally reserved for the clothing of the elite class, such as woven capes (tilmas) and armor, while the loincloths, underskirts (enredos) and tunics (huipiles) used by ordinary people were made from the harder plant fiber. Together these made up the basic attire of the Mesoamerican people, with some regional and cultural variations identified from 1200 BCE up to the arrival of the Spanish. Some elements of this traditional textile-making industry even have survived to this day.
    The oldest evidence of weaving in Meso-America was an imprint on ceramic found in the Valley of Tehuacán and dated at 1500 to 900 BCE. But the only direct evidence of loom-woven textiles that has been preserved is dated at 200 to 300 CE and corresponds to two cloth items that were used to wrap a mummified body found in a cave at Coxcatlán, in the same Valley of Tehuacán. These items are of simple manufacture but are decorated with bands of different colors.

  • Preparing the fibers

    For millennia, humans have produced cord, netting and woven cloth to meet a variety of everyday needs. Textile-making requires lengths of continuous, strong and flexible fiber, while the variety of fibers naturally available are thin and usually discontinuous. Animal fibers such as hair and wool can be obtained from sheep, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and chinchillas. Even human hair can be used as fiber. Other animal fibers used include tendons, which are stronger but more rigid, and filaments secreted by caterpillars such as the silkworm. Plant fibers also come in many varieties, including dried moss or seed filaments, such as cotton; long, strong grasses; fibers extracted from plant leaves and stems, such as sisal, linen, jute, hemp, reeds and pita fiber, obtained from the bark of trees and bushes.

    Natural fibers are not suitable for weaving in their original state but must be prepared with a special process that depends on the type of fiber used. Tendons are dried and crushed to soften them, and then the fibers are separated and frayed into individual strands. A similar process is used for hard plant fibers, such as those from leaves and stems, which are soaked then pounded to remove the soft pulp, leaving behind the stronger interior fiber, which is then dried and separated into thin filaments.

    Soft, flexible filaments such as cotton balls and raw wool can contain impurities such as twigs, insects or even excrement, and therefore must be carefully washed. In the case of wool, washing is also needed to remove the oils that impregnate the wool, which have a penetrating odor. Once dried, the wool is “carded” with combs to remove knots and to make the fibers run in the same direction.

    The next step is spinning. In this stage of the process yarn is made, which is a grouping of fibers running in the same direction and twisted together. It is the yarn that is ultimately woven. The ball or fleece is spun by thinning it out with the hands and winding it around a wooden stick with a disk that is hanging free or resting on a surface and kept upright with a wooden, stone or ceramic counterweight attached to its lower end. When the spindle is rotated in a single direction it stretches the fibers, tensing and twisting them to make the first ply of yarn. In some cases, these plys are spun together to make multi-ply yarn, depending on the desired strength, flexibility or thickness of the cloth that is to be woven. For multiply yarn, the plys are spun together in the opposite direction.

    Yarn has different names in the textile traditions of the Americas, depending on how many elements it contains. Thus, the product of the initial twist is called “cabo” (single ply yarn), and that of the secondary twist (composed of two or more plies) is called “hilado” (two- or multi-ply yarn), and the tertiary twist (containing two or more ‘hilados’) is called “cable” (cable yarn). Images 1,2,3,4

    To achieve the beautiful designs of pre-Colombian textiles, the ancient weavers of the Americas took advantage of the natural colors of their fibers. The most common yarns in the Andes were made of llama, alpaca and vicuña hair, as well as cotton. In Meso-America, in contrast, textile making was based primarily on cotton. These different fibers come in a variety of natural colors: Andean camelid hair, for example, ranges from white to black and includes shades of brown and grey. Cotton, meanwhile, can be white, pink, or brown in color. Imagen 5. All other colors—yellows, greens, reds, oranges, blues and purples—were achieved by dyeing.

    Yarn can be dyed either before or after being spun. Dyes can animal (insects such as cochineal or mollusk extract), vegetable (fruit, leaves, roots, bark), or mineral in origin (coal, clay, iron and copper ores). Porous fibers such as soft wool or cotton absorb and retain color easily, while harder fibers and animal hair are more dye-resistant, though in general animal fibers take dyes better than vegetable fibers, thanks to the oils they contain. To prepare the fiber and enhance the absorption of color, the dye is combined with a mordant, which softens the exterior of the fiber to allow the color to set.

    In all regions of the Americas where textile art has been practiced, the textile makers used the dyes available to them locally. In Meso-America and in the Andes, two of the most common colors were red and blue. Dark red dye was derived from two main sources, one vegetable (from the roots of the bush Relbonium sp.) and the other animal (from the cochineal, a parasite insect found on a cactus species). Shades of blue were sometimes derived from a black potato that grows on the Andean Altiplano, but more commonly were obtained from a plant from the same family as the Asian indigo. Dark blue dye was obtained by combining this plant with mineral substances that acted as color enhancers. These were also used to obtain specific shades and helped to set the dye into the fabric. Many plants were used to produce yellow dye, but the most common were those from the molle tree and from the chilca bush. Some of these ancient dyeing traditions are still in use today in the Mapuche communities of the southern Andes. In that region, the color purple is achieved by soaking the fibers with maqui fruit, while the leaves and stems of the michay bush produce yellow and golden hues.

  • Textiles with two elements

    El gorro troncocónico de Arica
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    Los cascos de las pampas
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    Tejido Balanceado                                                                                                                                                                                                             Ver animación

    The development of a technology that could produce textiles using two thread systems interlaced in opposite directions prompted the development of textile art around the globe. To create a textile on a frame or loom, one group of threads must be held in tension (a process called “warping”) in order to allow them to be interlaced crosswise by another group of threads. The group of threads that are tensed and constitute the fixed or stable element of the cloth are known as the warp, and these run vertically in relation to the weaver. The other group of threads that are interwoven under and over the warp and running horizontal to the weaver, is called the weft. To produce cloth, a selection of warp threads is raised and the weft is run horizontally between the separated warp threads. This process is repeated across the width of the cloth. The warp and weft can be interwoven in different ways, and the great variety of configurations gives rise to a multiplicity of possible designs and textures. The cloth can be further embellished by painting and/or applying other materials such as feathers, metallic items, hair and/or embroidery. Many of these techniques require the threads to be organized in a specific way as they are woven, which points to the complex planning process that is required for intricate designs even before the weaving begins.

    The medium that allows the warp to be held in tension is the loom, an artifact that can take different forms but performs a single basic function. In the Andes, three main types of looms were used: the simplest was the belt loom, which was also used in Meso-America. This loom has two beams that run parallel to the weaver, one of which is fixed to a log or stake and one that is tied to the weaver’s waist. Another is the horizontal loom, which has two parallel beams held in place with four stakes set in the ground. This structure enables finer, thicker and/or larger cloth to be woven. The third is the vertical loom, composed of four beams tied together. This kind of loom is more practical for larger pieces. The tunics of the Wari or Inka culture would have been woven on this kind of loom, as its variable width made it possible for several weavers to work together on a single piece of cloth. Images 1,2,3,4,5 .

    The simplest way of interlacing the warp and weft is to use the same quantity of threads for each and proceed to interweave them evenly by passing the weft under and over the threads of the warp, producing a balanced cloth. For different designs, the weaver can vary the number of warp and/or weft threads or the way the warp and weft are woven together, leaving different threads visible to obtain a certain decorative pattern. Varying the color of yarn increases the possible effects even more. Additional thread systems can also be introduced into the warp or weft to produce more complex designs, textures and other effects.

    One of the most common modified woven structures is tapestry, which uses different colored wefts that hide the warp threads discontinuously across the cloth. Other more sophisticated techniques used in Meso-America and in the Andes include gauze and serge weaving. In gauze weave, the adjacent warps are twisted together to produce a more open, less dense cloth. Serge is produced by offsetting the points of interlacing between the warp and weft in a regular manner with each row, giving the cloth a diagonal effect.

    Lastly a special kind of knotted weave that originated in the pre-Colombian Andes is reticular weave, which produces a triangular- or square-based reticulate that is achieved by knotting the warp with regularly spaced weft threads.

  • Textiles with a single element

    Gorros de cuatro puntas de Tiwanaku
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    Gorro afelpado de Atacama
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    One of the first kinds of textile-making involved making cords from twisted or braided yarn. These cords were made using groups of single ply yarns, multi-ply yarns or cable yarn twisted or interlaced together to make thick, strong and flexible cord that was useful for tying, attaching or holding things together.

    Braided cord was made by lacing or crossing three or more yarns vertically. The cords themselves were made into specific lengths, depending on their use: as a belt, to hold a jug or to tie up an animal, for example. These cords also were knotted in various ways to keep the threads in place and stop the cord from unraveling.

    The oldest cords on record were made by groups of hunter-gatherers from animal tendons, leather and vegetable fiber strips, before the development of agriculture and animal domestication. The Chinchorro people, for example, who were the earliest inhabitants of the Arica coast (around 4000 B.C.E.), wore loincloths made of guanaco hair cord. Once more modified natural fibers such as cotton and llama hair yarn began to be used, they made cords out of these new materials.

    Cotton thread was first developed in the Central Andes around 3000 B.C.E. and was used by coastal peoples to manufacture twine and bags for fishing. The porous cotton fiber absorbs water, which expands and reinforces the thread, allowing it to hold the weight of a hook and fish.

    Even today in the Andean Altiplano traditionally made cord is commonly used by camelid herding groups. There, the herders themselves make the twisted and braided cord of thicker llama hair fiber, while the women spin the fiber into yarn and use it for weaving. Thus do the traditional Aymara communities in Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile and Argentina continue this ancient textile-making tradition.

    In Meso-America, cords were usually made from the fibers of wild plants such as the maguey plant, which has very strong internal fibers. Once these fibers are separated from the fleshy part of the plant, prepared and spun, they can be used to make very strong rope.

    Another type of textile based on a single element is made from a continuous yarn or cable interlaced or knotted with itself in successive rows. This can be achieved with the help of needles or sticks that provide a structure to which the item can be attached or as a guide at the free end of the yarn. The lower rows are bound or knotted to the upper rows, forming a woven surface of variable density, which can be tightly or loosely woven, and unlaced and flexible or fixed, if knots were used. Images 1, 2.

    Technically these kinds of textile structures correspond to knotted and interlaced netting and were developed long before agriculture and animal husbandry. Evidence of these techniques from around 2000 B.C.E. has been found on the coast of Arica in the form of ancient artifacts made of guanaco hair and cotton. Although these knotted nets and bags were probably used to capture and transport fish on the Andean coast, the same techniques were likely used to produce other kinds of objects in other locations during the same period. The fragility of organic fibers and their vulnerability to weathering and deterioration over time, accounts for their archeological absence in humid areas and presence in arid zones, such as the desert coast of Peru and northern Chile. Image 3.

  • References

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