In ancient Peru the main materials used for spinning and weaving were cotton, alpaca, and llama wool. They were employed in a number of natural colors, from white to brown, and they were also dyed using mineral, vegetable or animal pigments. In the spinning process a spindle was used that included a feature known as a pinturo which was a type of counterweight that facilitated the rotation of the spindle and the tightening of the thread. Weaving is one of the oldest traditions in the world. In fact, since 2500 BCE it has been an important part of Peruvian culture. It sits at the very core of the Quechua culture, shaping personal and regional identities, and acting as a form of inter-regional communication. Some people vest their entire sense of personal identity in their occupation as a weaver, stating that without weaving they would no longer have an identity. Much like coffee, cashmere, or wine, the quality of cotton varies greatly. Thanks to ideal growing conditions, extra-long staple length and hand harvesting, Peruvian pima cotton is the world’s finest, prized for its exceptional durability, softness and brilliant luster.
After drying, the fabric was spun into yarn on small spindles that spin like a toy top. The spinning motion winds the fibers around each other forming a continuous strand that can then be woven into cloth. During this task the spinners used talcum powder on their fingers. The threads were removed from the spindle and rolled into balls which could then be dyed. The balls or skeins were then ready to be woven.
Ancient Peruvian Swifts
Most yarns that you will find at the big craft store chains or at discount stores that sell yarn comes either in a ball or a skein. A ball is literally a round conglomeration of yarn. The yarn can be pulled from the outside of the ball, and sometimes from the inside as well. A skein is similar to a ball but it is formed into an oblong shape. Its the classic shape most people think of when they think of yarn. Yarn can be pulled either from the outside or the inside of a skein of yarn. A hank is a different way of selling yarn in which the yarn is loosely wound into a large ring shape and then twisted on itself to make a package thats easy to ship and store. Untwist the hank and you will find yourself faced with a big ring of yarn that needs to be wound into a ball before it is used. In yarns for handcrafts such as knitting or crochet, hanks are not a fixed length, but are sold in units by weight, most commonly 50 grams. Depending on the thickness of the strand as well as the inherent density of the material, hanks can range widely in yardage per 50 gram unit; for example, 440 yards for a lace weight mohair, to 60 yards for a chunky weight cotton. Swifts are most commonly used to ball a hank of yarn. An increasing percentage of yarn is sold in hank form, especially hand dyed or hand spun yarns, which necessitates balling for knitters and crocheters. Swifts are also sometimes used by weavers in preparing the warp: if the yarn for the warp comes in a hank, the warp can be wound directly onto the warping board from the swift.
Weaving in Ancient Peru
Backstrap or fixed horizontal looms were used. With the help of a shuttle, the threads were passed through the warp to form the weft. Using a batten, the weaver pressed down on the thread, tightening it firmly. The combs helped the weaver to organize the threads during the weaving process. Fine needles were used to join the panels and embroider designs on the cloth. In many parts of present day Peru, particularly on the northern coast and in the highlands, women continue to use these ancestral weaving techniques. Baskets which contained materials and tools that would have been used by the spinners and weavers of ancient Peru have been found in pre-Columbian tombs.
Quipus were the main system employed by the Incas to record information. The knotted cords were used to record countable information. The colors, knots and the distances between the knots enabled those who used the quipus to identify the type of object or the characteristics of the population being recorded.
Traditional Weaving in Modern Peru
Chinchero is a small Andean Indian village located high up on the windswept plains of Anta at 3762m about 30km from Cusco. There are beautiful views overlooking the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with the Cordillera Vilcabamba and the snow-capped peak of Salkantay dominating the western horizon. Cincheros weaving co-op is an effort to preserve these ancient ways by passing them on to new generations. The artists and members of the cooperative work together in a way that generates a source of income by demonstating their techniques and selling the finished products. First the wool is washed using a soap made from a plant known as Sacha Paraqay. When grated into water, the root makes detergent-like suds and the animal fibers come out naturally clean and white.
Natural dyes are abundant in Peru’s Sacred Valley, and some of the most common are the chilca bush for creating yellow and green hues, indigo leaves and stems for dark blue, and cochinilla insects that are collected from cacti and ground to make a bright red dye. Aged lichen can also be used to dye the wool deep yellows and browns, and new lichen creates lighter yellows. Often, fixatives such as mineral salts are used to create color fastness, alter hues, or intensify color saturation.
Cochineal is the most commonly used substance for the production of red dye. It is a scale insect (a relative of the aphid) found on the prickly pear cactus, which is common to the Sacred Valley. The insect is dried in the sun and then ground into a fine powder using stones, a mortar and pestle, or a hand-turned grinder. This powder is then added to water and boiled as the basis of the dyeing process. Fixatives must be used with cochineal to adjust the pH and ensure color fastness. Depending on the type, quantity, and combination of fixatives used, cochineal can be used to dye a wide range of shades, from bright red to shades of pink, purple, and more.
The first loom is very simple and stands upright. Two people thread the yarn through the loom by tossing it back and forth, producing a fabric that is reversible. The backstrap loom is a bit more complex, but still uses the same basic methods. It is designed for one person and is named for the strap worn around the weaver’s back that keeps the strands tight. This is better for the more complex designs and figures that are woven into the final fabrics.Most of the symbols are taken from nature, animals, mountains, rivers, plants or the like, in a showing of reverence for Pachamama, Mother Earth. Sometimes they are arranged in a way that tells a story, commemorates an important event, or just depicts life in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. As always, please leave a comment.
Natural Dyes of Peru: http://threadsofperu.com/pages/natural-dyes-peru
Qhuecha Weaving Culture: http://epicureandculture.com/quechua-culture-preserving-the-peruvian-weaving-tradition/