October 2006
Design Inspiration from the Andes: A Millenia Old Art Form
  > Altiplano woman warping a four stake ground loom.
  > Andean textiles display a sumptuous palette of vegetable dyes and cochineal.


> A manta swaddles a Quechua woman's child.


Andean textiles are the heart of the Peruvian highlands. Covered in a mind-boggling array of ornate patterns and motifs, each textile bears the identity of the village in which it was woven – just like Scottish tartans or knit fisherman sweaters. Their colors vary from rich earth tones to dazzling vegetable dyes. But, no color is as distinctive as cochineal, the superior crimson red derived from the crushed body of insects that – rather than gold – was the Spaniard's most lucrative export from the New World. The original multi-gadgets, Andean weavings known as mantas serve as a baby stroller, the trunk of your car, and Tupperware all combined into one highly utilitarian, but immensely decorative object.

Even more impressive is the quality of their fiber. Traditionally woven from hand-spun alpaca with thread counts that would give your bed sheets a run for their money, Andean weaving owes its sumptuous texture and hand to the unique properties of camelid fibers. Closer to hair than wool, in direct sunlight alpaca fiber captures a shine unmatched by wool. Like silk, this renders its colors more vivid and complex. Still, the most stunning characteristic of warp-patterned weaving is the sheer time expended for the completion of just one textile. The fiber first must be shorn from the alpaca (often after a wait of up to three years, as longer staple lengths produce stronger and smoother yarns.) Picked clean of vegetable matter by hand while dry, the fiber is then spun into yarn using a drop spindle – a technology that has remained unchanged for millennia.

The fiber is then lightly washed, just enough to remove the dust from the pastures and to set the ply of the yarn, since alpaca lack greasy lanolin (as opposed to sheep.) A month might have already elapsed by the time the yarn is dyed. Stringing the loom may take multiple days and requires an extra pair of hands, and weaving may take over a month depending on the size of the completed textile and the complexity of the patterns and techniques. Textiles in the Andes are not just a passion, but a way of life.

Andrew J. Hamilton
B.A., Art History, Yale University
Doctoral Graduate Student, Art History, Harvard University

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