Peruvian Weaving: 4 Traditional Looms from Peruvian Textile Heritage
In Peru, the production of textiles is considered one of the most ancient expressions of pre-hispanic art. The deep history and culture of Peruvian artistic production relies heavily on textile artifacts and on the loom.
It is said that “perhaps no other society in history poured as much cultural energy into textiles as indigenous Andean civilization.” The centrality of fiber art to the Andean mind resulted in a remarkable development of skills, design and techniques that are unmatched anywhere in the world.
Over time these techniques have evolved greatly including the now popular textile, tela andina, which is a traditional Andean woven fabric. A lot of our products, specifically those made by our Accessories Expert, Herminia, feature hints of tela andina to add the perfect Peruvian twist to our timeless pieces.
There would be no tela andina without the loom! This tool was implemented in Peru around 1400 BC, and from that point on, many different cultures in Peru, such as Chavin, Wari, Nasca, and later Inca, started to produce their textiles by weaving, rather than doing it directly by hand. Each community has their own specific techniques, materials, colors, and patterns reflecting their cosmology, spirituality, and ethnic and regional belonging. Weaving could be done using different kinds of looms which we will begin to explore in this blog post!
Amongst different Peruvian communities, woven fabrics and clothes carried important values linked to social and economic relations. They signaled class and status through the intricacy of patterns, the refinement of materials, and the chosen colors.
Textiles were used as valued gifts and due tributes to nobility and were essential elements of religious sites, ceremonies and funerary art. Some shrines were even specifically devoted to the activities of weaving and spinning and were worshipped by specialized craftsmen who would offer tributes in the shape of small tools used in the production process.
Although textile practices varied depending on the Peruvian region and community, there is evidence that generally men and women alike could specialize in weaving. Under Incan control, there wasn’t a strict distinction of tasks and both male and female weavers were considered as bearers of an exclusive knowledge and masters of a skill.
Before we get into the variations in Peruvian weaving, we want to explain the difference between the 2 essential features of woven textiles: the weft and the warp. These are the two sets of threads that intersect perpendicularly and thus form the texture of each fabric, with the weft running horizontally and the warp vertically.
The warp threads are considered ‘passive’ as they form the skeleton of the fabric onto which the weaver inserts the weft. The weft threads are considered ‘active’ because they create the patterns and designs of the finished woven textile.
The heddle is an important element of the loom that consists of a bar tied to some warp threads to maintain them in order and open for the passage of the weft. When using a loom to weave, the heddle is what makes the process go significantly faster, easier, and neater.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the main elements of weaving and the loom, we can dive into the differences of the specific looms!
1) An early type of loom used in Peru was the telar de cintura or kallwa, however it has many names between the different varieties of Peruvian indigenous languages. This loom was the most widespread and commonly used throughout South American countries and it has now become an important folkloristic element of Peruvian culture.
In the kallwa, the warp (remember this is the vertical thread), is straightened and secured to two sticks at opposite ends. One end can be hung to a tree branch or beam in the ground and the other, supported by a strap, is fastened to the waist of the weaver who can then regulate the tension of the warp through their body.
The structure of this loom is almost non-existent because it is formed solely by the two opposite ends of the stick and one or two heddle bars. This makes it extremely portable and easy to carry everywhere. Typically the fabrics produced from this technique were destined to men, such as unkus, a type of tunic, mantels and girdles.
2) Another pre-hispanic loom is the telar de cuatro estacas (four-peg loom) or ‘pampa away’ which in Quechua means ‘to weave on flat land.’ Unlike the kallwa, its structure and warp tension are fixed because it consists of four stakes nailed to the ground, their distance dependent on the desired width of the fabric.
3) Unlike the previous two looms we mentioned, the vertical loom was in an upright position beside a wall. It was formed by either a top and a bottom stick suspended by two rods or just by a top stick and some stone weights at the end that kept the warp stretched.
This type of loom made it possible to weave much wider pieces of fabric, also because more people were able to weave the same piece of cloth simultaneously with a supplementary frame. Weavers would start at the bottom in a seated or kneeling position and would conclude standing up.
Just like with the four peg loom, this can be set to any desired width and it was mainly used in the Wari community to produce fine tapestry tunics.
4) The treadle loom was first introduced in Peru in the 1500s and 1600s when Spain held control of the country. This alternative allowed the confection of fabric on a bigger scale as fabric was able to be produced by the meter.
Its introduction paved the way to the industrialization of textile production in Peru along with the rise of the obrajes. These were big manufacturing plants that could have up to 40 looms and executed all stages of production of cloth, not just weaving but also dyeing, carding, spinning, fulling and finishing.
Here’s just a glimpse of Peruvian textile culture ! …. If you want to learn more about Peruvian textile practices we invite you to visit the Amano Pre-Columbian Textile Museum in Lima and its digital exhibitions on Google Arts & Culture!