Latin American Studies Ancient Andean Textiles
Penelope Dransart
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0218


This article includes publications on the yarns, fabrics, and textiles produced for millennia in the Andes before the 16th-century European invasion. The geographical coverage is from Colombia in the north as far as northern Chile and northwestern Argentina in the south. Textile scholars often distinguish between fabrics and textiles. The former term is more encompassing and includes nonwoven cloth, such as felt or constructions made with a single element such as looping. Textiles, on the other hand, are the outcome of regularly interlacing a vertical set of elements, the warp, with a horizontal one, the weft, in a pliable plane of interacting threads. In the form of garments, regalia, bags, wall hangings, and funerary offerings, pre-Hispanic fabrics and textiles from the Andes can be spectacular, in both visual appearance and technique. A particularly long record exists of extremely well preserved examples, including a large number of complete garments, conserved due to the aridity of Andean deserts and the freezing conditions at 6,000 meters above sea level, where mountaintop shrines are encountered. The iconographic range is impressive—from naturalistic renditions of the creatures and beings of this and other cosmological worlds to highly abstract and geometric forms of expression. Some Andean visual imagery characteristically refers to yarn and fabric construction, whether it be plying yarn or looping, twining, or braiding cloth. In this sense, to borrow Marshall McLuhan’s well-used coinage, “the medium is the message.” This interest in the visual characteristics of the medium precedes the introduction of record-keeping by means of the khipu or chinu, the Quechua and Aymara terms for what, in Spanish, is called quipu (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Latin American Studies article “Quipu”). Scholars have therefore explored the significance of textiles, sometimes using as a premise that Andean textiles encode culturally meaningful information in an analogous manner to the storing of information in the knots of a khipu. Such characteristics have led to the publications included here, in which the authors pay attention both to concepts of structure, construction, and process in the production of yarn and fabrics as well as to the visual expression of iconographic themes.

Historical Background

This section includes a selection of publications that have paved the way for the development of studies in pre-Hispanic textiles from the Andes. The authors are or were textile artists, archaeologists, historians, art historians, and conservators. Raoul d’Harcourt (b. 1879–d. 1971) wrote a seminal account of pre-Hispanic weaving in the Andes, accompanied by clear diagrams. Harcourt 1962 (originally published in 1934) describes his method as that of reconstructing ancient techniques, although he commented that the weavers did not necessarily follow the same steps. This combination of scholarly study with practical experience is characteristic of many textile specialists whose works are listed in this article. It was a route already taken by Anni Albers, who wrote On Weaving after nearly fifty years of weaving, teaching, and studying ancient textiles (Albers 1974, originally published in 1965). Between 1922 and 1933, she was a student at the Bauhaus in Germany and became a member of the Bauhaus Weaving Workshop. Troy 2002 discusses the author’s collaboration with scholars of the Andes, Junius Bird and George Kubler. From the end of the 1940s, Junius Bird began to publish findings from excavations on the late preceramic Huaca Prieta mound in the Chicama Valley in Peru. The volume listed here, Bird, et al. 1985, is the excavation report published after Bird’s death in 1982. It is noteworthy for the attention it gives to archaeological textiles and the analyses devised for studying the patterning of twined fabrics that had completely faded. Retouched photographs bring back lost designs, most famously that of a spread-winged male condor, which is often reproduced in textbooks on Andean archaeology. In addition, this publication represents a milestone because the authors used computers to help them process the results of their textile analysis. Other approaches detailed in Carrión Cachot 1949; Gisbert, et al. 1987; and Murra 1989 emphasize social context. Rebeca Carrión Cachot’s doctoral thesis, presented to the Universidad Mayor de San Marcos in 1931, is based on a study of garments from cemeteries in the Paracas Peninsula and their embroidered iconography. Of note in her research is the attention she gives to mythological figures and the religious context of the depictions in embroidered textiles. Murra established that textiles were the main ceremonial good in the Andes, serving to emblematize aesthetic standards and other values, while Gisbert and her collaborators also contextualize the study of textiles in the light of deep traditions expressing mythical beings.

  • Albers, Anni. On Weaving. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1974.

    Originally published in 1965. The author dedicated her book to her “great teachers, the weavers of ancient Peru.” She explores textile principles and methods, including the choice of raw materials in relation to the interweaving of warp and weft as well as the function of looms. Chapters on draft notation, tactile sensibility, and design as a process of visual organization are included. A dossier of visual images includes a selection of ancient Andean textiles.

  • Bird, Junius B., John Hyslop, and Milica Dimitrijevic Skinner. The Preceramic Excavations at the Huaca Prieta Chicama Valley, Peru. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 62. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1985.

    This report on the Huaca Prieta excavations, a mound with midden deposits on Peru’s north coast, presents chapters on basketry and matting as well as fabrics. Detailed analysis of the yarn structure and the twining and weaving enabled the authors to conclude that an increase in the production of textiles occurred through time. Changes in the types of twining resulted in a decrease in figurative patterning and an increase in striping.

  • Carrión Cachot, Rebeca. Paracas. Lima, Peru: Corporación Nacional de Turismo, 1949.

    This booklet describes funerary bundles from cemetery sites in the Paracas Peninsula in southern Peru. The author itemizes the garment types found accompanying bundles from the Paracas Necrópolis cemetery and discusses where they were placed in the bundles. She notes the ceremonial character of the garments and considers the richly figurative decorative programs embroidered on the textiles. Featherwork and basketry are briefly described.

  • Gisbert, Teresa, Silvia Arze, and Martha Cajías. Arte textil y mundo andino. La Paz, Bolivia: Gisbert y Cía, 1987.

    This encyclopaedic study of textiles produced by Andean peoples in the geographical region between Cuzco, Peru, and Potosi, Bolivia, starts with pre-Hispanic textiles, continuing up to the present. The authors describe textile techniques under the concept of “texture” and they consider textile designs to be signs expressing cultural values, which change according to historical-geographical context. Continuities in the mythical referents of textile designs are explored.

  • Harcourt, Raoul d’. Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques. Edited by Grace G. Denny and Carolyn M. Osborne. Translated by Sadie Brown. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962.

    The author describes ancient techniques of weaving, network, needle-made fabrics, and plaiting, using textiles from the central and southern coast of Peru. The book’s first part includes woven fabrics, the second part nonwoven fabrics, and the third part embroideries and trimmings. He recognizes the interchangeability of warp and weft as an important characteristic of pre-Hispanic textiles. Originally published in French in 1934 (Les textiles anciens du Pérou et leurs techniques [Paris: Les Éditions d’Art et d’Histoire]).

  • Murra, John V. “Cloth and Its Function in the Inca State.” In Cloth and Human Experience. Edited by Annette B. Weiner and Jane Schneider, 275–302. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

    An updated version of a paper originally published in 1962, this chapter examines the role of state-sponsored, peasant cloth production during Inka times. Using accounts written by Spanish chroniclers during the colonial period, the author discusses the use of garments during the life cycle and the role of ethnic lords in cloth production. He emphasizes that textiles were granted, sacrificed, or exchanged during virtually all political, military, religious, and other social events.

  • Troy, Virginia Gardner. Anni Albers and Ancient American Textiles: From Bauhaus to Black Mountain. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2002.

    Anni Albers’s career as a weaver of pictorial weavings and as teacher, author, and collector of pre-Hispanic textiles is discussed in relation to her interest in pre-Hispanic textiles in German collections and the collaborative work she did with George Kubler and Junius B. Bird at Yale University. The book emphasizes the use Albers made of ancient Andean techniques in designing modernist textiles in conjunction with her belief that thread was a “carrier of meaning,” not merely a utilitarian means to an end.

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