For centuries prior to the Spanish Conquest, Andean textiles were used to express identity and ancestral belief. Considered the first art form in the region, cloth has possessed unparalleled importance in the Andes since the second millennium B.C. Textiles were powerful agents in the world of the living and the dead for numerous cultures across the region. In life, they conveyed political, social, and occupational status through their material, color, and motifs. In death, they served as wrapping for sacred mummy bundles and costumes for the afterlife. To this day, Andean textiles are both utilitarian items and instruments of ritual that embody Andean worldviews and cultural values.
Preserved in tombs either on the arid coast or at high altitude, Andean textiles were produced using techniques that included weaving, dyeing, knotting, and plaiting. Either local or traded, materials included cotton and camelid fibers, natural dyes and pigments such as cochineal, and even feathers from the Amazon (1979.206.639). Weaving baskets, complete with shell, bone, and wood instruments, were preserved in the tombs of high-status individuals, demonstrating that the act of textile production was just as sacred as the final product (1979.206.950.1-.71).
Across the Andes, the act of clothing the body was very political. Garments served as important markers of identity and status, and encoded signs and symbols that differentiated royalty from commoners. Four-cornered hats, for example, feature geometric and zoomorphic designs and would have been worn by high-ranking Wari and Tiwanaku men (1994.35.138). The tunic, a male garment worn over a loincloth, demonstrates impressive variety in iconography and technique by region and time period. Typically, this garment was tapestry-woven and featured a vertical slit at the neck and occasional sleeves. For pre-Inca cultures, imagery was deeply tied to religious belief and featured geometric human, feline and reptilian figures and hybrids in bold colors (29.146.23). Inca tunic design was more regulated and included diamond-banded waistbands and tocapu (coded geometric designs) along the borders or as an all-encompassing grid (2018.5). A checker-board pattern was associated with military prowess, and probably decorated garments gifted to victorious warriors or used as tokens of diplomacy as the Inca expanded their empire.
The Inca enforced strict standards with respect to garment decoration and thread material, and only a designated few were permitted to wear the finest cloth, called cumbi. A Quechua word for a finely woven textile made from the highest quality alpaca fibers, cumbi was a luxury textile in the Inca empire, where state officials heavily regulated its production, use, and design. A select group of female and male weavers was tasked with making this textile in both centrally located, residential weaving centers and in outposts across the empire. Colonial manuscripts illustrate the production and design of Inca garments, in addition to the use of knotted cords (quipu), which served as record-keeping devices for various cultures across the Andes.
Textiles also delineated sacred spaces, both outdoors and as architectural adornment. Evidence suggests that the Chimú used wall hangings, as demonstrated by a large, woven panel (1979.206.601), which emulates the sculptural reliefs on the palace walls at the north coast capital of Chan Chan. Feathered panels may have served a similar function for the Wari on the southern coast (1979.206.624). The Inca used cumbi to adorn natural, sacred sites (huacas) such as rock outcroppings. Sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles also describe the Inca custom of ceremoniously decorating interior spaces with cloth.
Building on this long-standing textile tradition in the Andes, Inca weavers and their descendants continued their artistry in the colonial period. Indigenous textile techniques and forms continued after the Conquest, but often featured a combination of cultural motifs. One colonial lliclla (a woman’s shawl) combines Inca tocapu and a Spanish-style lattice motif (08.108.10), while another decorates the horizontal registers of traditional Inca weaving design with imitation European lace (1994.35.67). Colonial Peruvian inventories show that locals owned a variety of imported European textiles, including lace as a trimming for garments and household textiles. Sumptuary laws prohibited Indigenous women from wearing costly European textiles and precious stones, so this mantle’s imitation lace may have been an attempt to thwart those restrictions. Other colonial Andean garments include miniature tunics made for votive figures like the Christ Child, which sometimes feature metal-wrapped yarns (2007.470), a technique used in textiles in Europe since 1000 B.C.. Metallic threads, European looms, and the introduction of sheep’s wool and foreign fabrics had a profound impact on local Andean textile traditions.
New categories of textiles emerged in Peru in the colonial period, as Indigenous weavers completed commissions for the Catholic Church and private patrons. Influenced by Spanish tastes, popular items included tapestries, seat covers (2003.412), bedspreads, and rugs, which were displayed prominently in homes and churches. These textiles feature a sophisticated medley of Indigenous, European and Asian iconography. An impressive example is a seventeenth-century cotton and camelid fiber tapestry with woven French lettering that reveals the consultation of European prints depicting Greek mythology, the Old Testament, and moral emblems in its making (56.163).