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Traditional Peruvian Textiles

Updated on March 4, 2011

Traditional Andean Textiles from Peru

Hello there, this lens has been created by the founders of the NGO Threads of Peru. We support the indigenous Andean artisans of Peru & their traditions of weaving textiles. We connect weavers to an online market (Our ebay store) for their crafts; providing communities with economic opportunity. This Lens is meant to give you a sense of all the different aspects of Andean textile production, using the old natural ways.

A woman weaves on her back-strap loom in the remote high mountain community of Chuallacocha - located above the Sacred Valley.
A woman weaves on her back-strap loom in the remote high mountain community of Chuallacocha - located above the Sacred Valley.

About The Ancient Tradition

Traditional Andean weaving in Peru involves the shearing of fiber from herds of Alpaca, Sheep and Llama; the washing and dyeing of the fiber using natural detergents and dyes; the spinning of the fiber into thread, using the drop spindle; and the weaving of cloth items using the back-strap loom.

These ancient methods, used since before the time of the Inca, were nearly lost, as people moved to the use of cheaper factory made fabrics and chemical dyes. But in recent years, the traditions have awakened, as the tourist market, coupled with a strong interest in organic and environmentally sustainable products have created a new value for the old ways. This new interest in traditional textiles comes at a time when the indigenous communities and their customs are eroding, as the need for work creates a migration of mountain people to the cities.

The creation of traditional Andean textiles is a time-consuming process. Scarves may take two to three weeks to weave, and larger pieces like mantas might take months. And that's just the weaving!

The process actually begins in the raising of sheep, llamas and alpacas. The woolen fibre is sheared from these animals, and it is washed and spun into threads by hand. Threads are coloured, using plant, animal and mineral dyes. The dyeing processes are often time-consuming events in themselves. All of these things happen before the weaving can begin.

If you add up all the time and effort it takes to tend to sheep and alpacas, shear them, wash the wool, spin, gather dying materials, dye the wool, and do the weaving, the total effort required to produce these works is difficult to quantify.

RAISING OF ALPACA, SHEEP & LLAMA - This is where it all begins!

Lucia Castillo Yupanqi of Chaullacocha watches over her herd.
Lucia Castillo Yupanqi of Chaullacocha watches over her herd.

Surely this is agriculture, not weaving? Not really - it is a vital part of the weaving process.

The raising of fibre-producing animals is the foundation of traditional Andean weaving.The women and children of these communities tend their sheep, llamas, and alpacas, shearing them usually once a year, thereby collecting the fleece which is utilized for weavings. In poorer communities, it's not uncommon for the family to sell the entire fleece directly to the market, leaving nothing or very little for the women to weave with. Our work at Threads of Peru hopes to show Andean people (women and men) the value of retaining some of the fleece, because after adding value through the weaving process, they will see greater benefits from selling weavings than simply selling wool.

THE ALPACA

Like the llama, the alpaca is a relative of the camel. It is also calm and aloof, highly intelligent and easy to train. While generally mild mannered, an unwary stranger might find an alpaca unfriendly, as they also tend to spit if they are threatened or handled by an unfamiliar person.

There are two types of alpaca, the alpaca suri, which has a very long, mop-like coat, and the alpaca huacaya whose coat is shorter and curly - like that of a sheep. The huacaya is much hardier, and therefore more common in the Andes. The alpaca does not have hooves, and its padded feet do little damage to the turf of its range. Likewise, the alpaca chews off plant matter from the ground without pulling or damaging the roots. It is does not bother trees and in generally considered to be of 'low-impact' to the environment when compared to other herding animals such as sheep or goats.

The alpaca has been domesticated for over 5,000 years and was the focus of specific breeding programs since ancient times. The alpaca is generally smaller than the llama, and unlike its cousin, was never asked to carry cargo. The alpaca has long been bred for fiber, and well before the construction of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, nobles of pre-Inca civilization in Peru were enjoying fine garments made of woven alpaca fleece, and their wealth was then measured largely in numbers of alpaca. The alpaca was still held in the highest regard when the Incas came to power in the Andes over 3,000 years later. However, when the Spanish conquered the Incas nearly 500 years ago, the invaders were ignorant to the virtues of the alpaca and arrogantly replaced them with their own sheep. The alpaca was used primarily as a food source and its numbers dwindled. The alpaca might have faded from history, were it not for the fact that the vanquished Inca, who retreated into the mountains, took with them their prized little animals, and the alpaca survived. Today, there are approximately 3 million alpaca living in the Andes.

Alpaca hair is difficult to work with as it is finer, softer and more "slippery" in texture than sheep or llama wool. Alpaca hair is also much harder to dye as it takes longer for the colours to penetrate it. This fiber is stronger and warmer than sheep's wool, and is second only to mohair in strength. It equals or surpasses typical thermic characteristics of cashmere and mohair. Alpaca fiber is naturally hypoallergenic and less irritating to the skin than sheep's wool. Alpaca is an oilier fibre and woven alpaca is water resistant and highly breathable. It is washable, shrinks very little, and as it is free of lanolin, it tends to resist dust. Alpaca fiber is nonflammable, and the occurs naturally in 22 colours, making the alpaca the most colour diverse fiber-producing animal on earth. Due to these desirable characteristics, and the added difficulty of working the slippery fibers, products made from alpaca are generally more valuable than those made of sheep's wool.

The most valuable alpaca fiber is that of baby alpaca, which is softer and finer than the fleece of the adult animal. Baby alpaca is not from a baby animal, but it is the first shear on a young animal.

THE SHEEP

The sheep of Peru consist mainly of three types, Corriedale, Junin and Criollo. Of the estimated 15 million sheep in Peru, 60% are Criollo (also called Pampa, Columbian, Creole or Chilludo) and these are the type best adapted to the High Andean environment, and the ones commonly kept by indigenous communities. These sheep developed over hundreds of years, living in the mountain regions of much of South America and believed to be descendants of the Spanish Merinos and Churro, which were introduced in the mid 16th Century. It is unclear wether there were existing sheep varieties in Peru before the Spanish arrived, and if there were, they may have played a role in the development of the present day genetic makeup of the Criollo. These sheep are small to medium sized (weighing 30-50 lbs) and hardy. The rams have horns, and this breed is typically white, black, light brown or a blend of these shades.

THE LLAMA

The llama is an intelligent animal, which is easy to train. It often seems to maintain an 'aloof' manner, but being a herd animal, is very social and requires the company of other herding animals or humans to be comfortable. The llama is generally calm, and not flustered easily, making it an excellent companion for sheep, who often graze on the same land. On the other hand, like the camel, it can be stubborn if annoyed and will spit food if threatened.

A relative of the camel, the llama is an important domestic animal, numbering over a million in Peru today. The llama has been vital to Peruvian culture since ancient times, and is considered key to the success of Inca civilization, having been widely used for wool and the transportation of cargo. The llama can carry loads of 25% to 30% of their body weight for several miles. In Peru today, llamas are still mainly used for transport, but their coat is not typically used for weaving, as it is now considered too coarse. Their hair is sometimes used for making rope, or other utilitarian items such as mattress material for sleeping in the cold. Llamas have a double coat which is actually hair, not wool. The llama is still used widely for meat in South America. its hide is used for a wide variety of purposes in indigenous culture, and even its droppings are used to burn for fuel. The llama herds of Peru thrive in the High Andes at altitudes from 3500-5000 meters (12000 - 16000 feet).

Alpacas Really Do Spit!

Shearing Alpaca and Sheep - Shearing in the Andes

Woolen fibers are shorn from sheep, llamas and alpacas, which surround the highland communities - often tended by the weavers themselves.

Shearing of alpaca is done once every year or two, depending on the health of the animals, quality of the fleece, and the intended purpose of the fiber. Sheep are shorn every two or three years. Shearing usually takes place in January through April. This allows the animals to time through the warmer months to re-grow enough of its coat in time for the onset of the colder months. The shearing is carried out by hand using scissor-like shears. It can take up to three people to shear an alpaca, two holding the legs and one doing the shearing. Restraining the legs is key to controlling the animals. The animals are not harmed in the process, but the intelligent alpaca does not like to be shorn and thus does everything in its power to escape. The sheep, who are smaller and less intelligent are easier to restrain and shear. Once the wool is removed, the soiled or 'nappy' wool is separated and used for purposes other than spinning and weaving. In interviews with locals in the Sacred Valley of Peru, we were told of an Easter time shearing of alpaca; a festive occasion called "Llama-Chuy".

The community will prepare an ancient ceremony before they begin shearing the alpaca. They gather a "despatch" - ingredients for a proper 'payment' to the earth which includes things such as, huayruro (the red seed from the jungle), kanichiwa, various herbs, and dried blossoms. (A full dispatch can have a very wide range of items, including a dried llama foetus). Led by an elder, the men make kintus (three coca leaves) and blow on them, asking the blessings of the gods. Later, they fill conch shells with wine and throw the wine at the alpacas.

The Criollo sheep is a fairly low producer of wool, with a typical shearing amounting to between 800 grams and 1 kilogram (1.8 - 2.2 pounds). One year's growth from the alpaca can weigh from 2.25 to 4.5 kilograms (5-10 pounds).

Washing the Wool - Using natural soaps

Peru has more than one kind of naturally-occurring plant detergents, which are traditionally used to wash shorn wool and fiber. In the Sacred Valley, Sacha Paraqay is a root which is grated into the wash water and mixed to create a foamy lather.

Similarly, Illmanke is a green plant which is pounded with a rock or ground with a mortar and pestle; the resulting material is then mixed with water for the wash. Both plants produce a surprisingly effective white foamy wash water, which will clean the dirty wool in just a few minutes of vigorous hand washing. Once the wool is clean, it is hung to dry. Sheep's wool is washed before it is spun. But alpaca is spun before it is washed, as the washing process separates the fibers in the soapy water, and makes the fiber even more "slippery" and thus difficult spin.

Hand-Spinning Wool - The art of spinning with the Puska (drop spindle)

women spin in their home - Chaullacocha village. Click to see video
women spin in their home - Chaullacocha village. Click to see video

Spinning is the process of turning the raw wool and fibers, shorn from the animals, into strong, consistent useful threads. In the high-land communities of Peru, they use a drop spindle, or pushka in Quechua, which is similar to a wooden top' with an elongated axis. The puska varies in size with the diameter of thread being spun. The act of spinning is puskay - or to spin. Multiple threads are combined to form stronger ones. Single strands of thread are removed from the puskas, combined into balls and skeins, and then spun again together.

The process of combining threads is called plying or k'antiy. A larger version of the puska is used to k'antiy, creating double (2 ply) or triple (3 ply) strands of yarn into thinner, stronger and more consistent yarn for weaving. They can go to 4 ply or higher, but this is less common. Alpaca fiber can be spun in much finer threads than sheep wool.

"We use the word k'antiy to describe both the larger pushka, as well as the process of plying." ~ Señora Augustina - Teacher of the capacitation workshosps in Rumira Sondormayo, Chaullacocha, and Chupani.

It's rare to see an Andean woman or young girl without their hands busy spinning. It is a predominantly feminine activity in indigenous culture, and often so commonplace as to be performed almost unconsciously. It is common, in weaving communities, for boys to learn how to spin from a young age. Men will often know how to spin, even if they don't learn to weave. Spinning is done while walking along the road, chatting with friends, watching over your children or sheep. It's a skill that people begin training in as children, and it takes years of practice to spin proficiently. Thus, spinning is a refined art in and of itself; one whose difficulty is often overlooked. Spinning is a vital part of the weaving process, as the yarn must be fine, but strong and even to be useful in weaving high-quality textiles.

Spinning Workshop in Chupani Village - Organized and funded by Threads of Peru. Instructed by teacher señora Augustina.

The Natural Dyeing Process

The weavers from the villages of Chupani & Chaullacocha during a dying workshop
The weavers from the villages of Chupani & Chaullacocha during a dying workshop

Ancient knowledge regarding the process of dyeing wools using natural materials, until recently, was rapidly vanishing from indigenous Andean culture. Over the last 100 years, while weaving traditions continued, people preferred to use brightly colored synthetic wools and yarns bought in the market. Today, when indigenous women weave for their families, they still tend to use synthetic material, because it's easier. Also synthetics offer much more intense shades of colour, such as fluorescent red, which is very popular in the personal clothing of indigenous Andean people. To them, brighter is better in their own clothing, which is one of the main reasons why natural dyes had nearly faded into history.

Various capacitacion projects, plus the demand created by foreign tourists for 'natural' handmade products, has meant that the people are now placing much greater importance on the use of natural dyes, and the preservation of their ancient traditional skills. They now reserve their naturally dyed animal fiber for market.

"The Andes are filled with a great diversity of plant life and the Andean people have a rich knowledge of the use of these plants for medicines, and for dyeing their cloth."

The spun yarns will be boiled for varying periods, depending on the dyeing material or mix of materials, and the colour desired. Often fixers, such as salt or lemon are necessary to create colour fastness, alter hues, or intensify colour saturation. After the yarns have dried, they are re-spun, plied, and/or made into balls of yarn ready for weaving.

Dyeing is an art, which depends on personal colour preference, situation, size of the dying batch, etc. Techniques and materials required to achieve particular shades depend largely on the region and the materials available, as well as the education and experience of the dyer. At one time, most weavers would be well-aware of the natural processes and materials for dyeing. The popularity of convenient synthetics nearly resulted in a complete erasure of these skills from indigenous culture, and a whole generation came to lack this knowledge. Thankfully, a recent resurgence of interest in the old ways led to consultation with the elders who still remembered the processes, and the traditions have been (at least in part) rescued. However, more education is required for the indigenous population to completely regain these traditions.

While it is generally accepted that natural dyes are better for human health and the environment, we recognize that there is still a need for more complete and comprehensive research into the environmental impact of these natural dyes an processes. Threads of Peru hopes to organize, fund, and/or participate in such research in the near future.

For examples of natural colour processes from the Peruvian high-lands, please see ThreadsofPeru.com

The Weaving Process - Weaving with the Back-Strap Loom

In essence, traditional Andean weaving is composed in a grid pattern of thread. The 'y' axis of the grid, or longitudinal threads, are called "the warp", and the 'x' axis, or latitudinal threads, are called "the weft". The vast majority of Andean weaving is "warp- faced", which means that only the warp threads compose the visible portion of the pattern, while the role of the weft is mainly to control which threads of the warp are held up or down in each pass along the 'x' axis. With each pass of the weft, it is beaten into place with a small pointed bone tool called 'the beater' or 'ruki'. The beating process does a great deal to determine the density of the overall finished product.

Using simple looms, made of little more than sticks, the coloured woolen fibers are painstakingly woven by hand into intricate patterns. Each weaving reflects both the shared traditions of the weaving community, as well as the individual creative voice of the weaver, at the time of its creation. The resulting works are some of the finest handmade fabrics to be found anywhere in the world.

The Backstrap Loom

Is an elegant tool in its simplicity, effectiveness, and portability. The loom is made up of nine core parts, with a certain amount of variation in the make-up of the loom, depending on region and the needs of the specific project.

The Four-Post Loom

The four-post loom, is a form of a horizontal loom in which four stakes or posts are hammered into the ground into a rectangular arrangement.

Symbols & Patterns

Quechua Iconography

The patterns one can find in traditional Andean weaving are almost limitless. There is a strong presence of old world symbols, which have been around for centuries. There are regional variations and preferences for patterns in certain communities, just as there are for colour and specific clothing items. As with dye, the patterns often come from nature, although in the case of pattern, this tie with nature is one of inspiration, rather than a direct sampling of the natural material.

Andean people live in harmony with nature and many of the imagery in their designs reflect nature. Popular "edging" patterns include inti (sun), mayu (river) and straight and curving paths through the mountains. Series of flowers, stars and eyes are also common. Some designs a foreigner or outsider can clearly discern, but in other cases, they merely appear to be attractive geometric arrangements. More often than not the weaver will say a Quechua name that cannot be translated to Spanish easily, and then explain that it is an ancient design from their grandparents times.

Traditional textile patterns honor Pachamama, Mother Earth, and express thankfulness for growth, regeneration and the idea of being related the natural world.

Other popular designs are those that reflect the daily life of the women in the mountains - llamas, dogs, ducks, and condors - plus significant historical events and characters in Andean folklore.

If one visits an indigenous community, or has the chance to talk at length with weavers selling their work in Cusco, one soon discovers that the meanings conveyed in the patterns and symbols of Andean weaving very much depend on the personality and experience of the weaver. This may seem obvious, as it must surely be the case with any art form. But here, there is such a strong undercurrent of shared iconography, that it can be very interesting to discuss meaning with a weaver. Two symbols, made exactly alike, can have totally different meanings to different makers. If the weaver has a sense of humour, you may find some funny stories connected to her choice of pattern. If she is reverent of history, there may be some classic tales of historic figures and noble deeds contained in the thread. One conversation we had with a weaver centered around her choosing to depict a boat in her work. Given the remote mountain location of her home, we wondered where it came from. She explained that she had been inspired by her children, who were playing with a toy boat in the little stream in front of the house.

So often the pictures can only be deciphered in conversation with the maker. And that is an experience which is waiting for you in the mountains of Peru. You'll have to visit the weavers for their individual stories.

The Products! - Incredible High-quality Woven Products

Threads of Peru offers a range of traditionally hand-woven products that are commonly made by indigenous weavers. Each weaving in one-of-a-kind. Most of them have deep historic roots and are intimately tied to the culture and daily lives of the weavers. A few have evolved from market demands of visitors and the potential uses for other cultures. When we buy directly from the communities we pay the weavers directly at fair market price.

These are a few examples of products that come from this long and tedious process:

Scarves, Table Runners, Belts, Bag & Purses, Poncho, Pillow Cases

Visit the Threads of Peru Ebay Store to see some of these products.

Alejandrina Riveros weaves with her daughter at her side - Chaullacocha village
Alejandrina Riveros weaves with her daughter at her side - Chaullacocha village

Weaving & Culture in the Peruvian Andes

In the remote Andean villages where Threads of Peru works, most of the weavers are women, who wear skirts and traditional dress that is woven. The weaving tradition is a great part of their daily lives, and from a young age girls will learn first to spin wool and then to weave. Weaving plays an important part of courtship, marriage and childbirth as well as other ceremonies that mark important changes in people's lives. The people speak Quechua, the language of the Incas. They are a shy people and will avert their eyes when visited by strangers. Most of the older women cannot speak Spanish, and even the younger women's Spanish vocabulary is limited and stilted. With education only coming to some of these villages recently, the vast majority of these women are illiterate.

The women start families early (i.e. 14-18 years old), most commonly with men from neighboring villages. Exact statistics in regard to infant and child mortality are not available but a recent visit by doctors to Rumira Sondormayo (near Patacancha) showed that every child was suffering from malnutrition.

The process and tradition involved in making quality Peruvian textiles is highly complex and special. The authentic textiles are handmade ancient patterns woven from natural materials found in their communities (alpaca wool and plant dyes).

There is a fear among supporters of this ancient craft that the tradition could be lost. Therefore there is interest in fostering the women and villages who have strong textile skills and also in re-introducing the traditional weaving methods into some of the villages that are losing or have lost these traditions due to the availability of cheaper synthetic alternatives.

Along with the passing-down and preservation of ancient weaving knowledge, a strengthened sense of community among the Andean women is an added benefit of the weaving activity. The opportunity for more concentrated social activity for the women in these remote villages helps lead to positive changes in their communities. Among these changes is a shift of economic power, from the sole male provider in the family unit, to a shared ability between men and women. Income that is directly passed to the women from the sale of their weaving can be highly beneficial for the whole community. Studies show that the extra income generated by women in these communities is more likely to be spent on nutrition and the benefit of their children. The women are often much more family oriented and use the money for food, schooling and other important supplies within the household.

Amazing Books from Amazon - Books about Traditional Andean Textiles

Be sure to check out these wonderful reads!

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    • worldwidesouven profile image

      worldwidesouven 4 years ago

      I bought Peruvian textiles in Peru, it is really high quality and nice coloured! I can recommend to everybody who lives in cold climat.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'm Peruvian, really great lens!!!! about our textiles

    • profile image

      peasweet001 6 years ago

      Some textiles are really great to have especially in some traditional way which I think I bought those kind of classification in baby boys clothes online store at ebay

    • threadsofperu profile image
      Author

      threadsofperu 6 years ago

      @KellydeBorda: Glad you enjoyed the lens!

    • KellydeBorda profile image

      KellydeBorda 6 years ago

      I learned more about Peruvian textiles in the ten minutes it took me to read this lens than I have in 7 years living in Peru. Wonderful job for a wonderful cause. Blessed by an angel.