Peruvian and Bolivian Weavings

For the Aymara and Quechua Indians in the South American Andes, textile art has been the major creative outlet. These descendants of Incan and other Pre-Columbian weavers have concentrated in recent times on intricate warp-patterned structures, producing exquisite fabrics that were both functional and ceremonial. Beginning with traditional motifs, each weaver freely created his or her own variations. Most focused their creative energies on warp-patterned mantles, ponchos, overskirts, belts and bags. Because designing was done with the warps, these articles are all striped.
Mantles (llicllas) and ponchos were usually woven in two panels which were then sewn together.  Each panel was made with four selvages--a very unusual practice among weavers elsewhere. The warp for the simple backstrap, ground or frame loom was made with heading cords and was never cut. The fabric was woven from each end inward (by reversing the loom) and a few inches from one end the final rows of weft were painstakingly inserted with a needle (after the heddles and shed stick were removed). These "terminal" areas are found on each panel of every lliclla, aksu or poncho. Sometimes designs have been meticulously duplicated in these areas; other times simple bands appear.

The yarns for warp-patterned weaving must be exceptionally well-spun, plied, and then overspun so they are strong and elastic. Grace Goodall, who did extensive research among Peruvian Cuzco weavers, found that the spinning and plying of yarns for a single small poncho required an average of 223 hours!*
Most weaving processes are less time-consuming than yarn preparation, but this is not so with the warp-patterned weaves. Andean weavers use no harness controls for their patterning, but instead "pick" their complementary-warp designs one warp yarn at a time.  Contrasting colors are warped in pairs in the pattern stripes, and during the weaving one yarn of each pair is selected to create the designs--one by one. Ms. Goodall found in her research that a typical Cuzco weaver required 30 minutes to pick the pattern for just two wefts! She calculated that an average of 280 hours of weaving time was needed for one small warp-patterned poncho. The additional hours needed for wool preparation, spinning and dying meant that most weavers produced only one piece in a year's time. 
Ms. Goodall sadly reported (in 1969) that changing attitudes signaled the near end of this long, distinguished tradition. Weavers told her that their husbands now preferred to wear solid-colored or plain striped ponchos when working on the road gangs, and that many were ashamed to be associated with such "reactionary styles"--fashions that marked them as hillbillies. One woman wept as she admitted that the piece on her loom would surely be her last. 
The pieces in our collection are llicllas and aksus. A lliclla (or awayo) is a woman's garment worn wrapped around the shoulders and secured with a pin.  They have sometimes been used for carrying a baby or foodstuffs, and old ethnographic pieces are often stretched, from being tied diagonally. An aksu or half-aksu is a decorative overskirt, worn apron-style, but in the back.  The pieces in our gallery collection are all 20th century weavings; they are from 35 to 75 years old. Some incorporate synthetic dyes, while a full range of cochineal reds and pinks predominate in others.  See examples here.
Whether the patterning is intricately geometric, or full of fanciful creatures, these unique and beautiful warp-patterned weaves are truly astonishing examples of ethnographic fiber art. 
* Junius Bird, "Handspun Yarn Production Rates in the Cuzco Region of Peru," Textile Museum Journal, Vol II, Number 3, 1968, pp. 9-16 and Grace Goodell, "A Study of Andean Spinning in the Cuzco Region," same issue, pp. 2-8.

        Marla Mallett
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