Indigenous markets are one of the must-see events in Latin America. Whether it is the famous Otavalo market in Ecuador, or the Pisac market in Peru, travelers are sure to see many hand-woven tapestries for sale. At first glance, one may not realize the intricate detail and quality of these tapestries; fewer are aware of the long history and importance weaving has played in Andean society. The tapestries are not only beautiful and unique, but they provide a means for foreigners to appreciate indigenous culture of the region.
Over thousands of years people have relied heavily on textiles for both survival and artistic expression. In fact, fiber objects have been preserved for nearly ten thousand years. A large number of extremely elaborate fabrics still exist, spanning from about 3000 BC to the present. They form the longest continuous textile record in history.
Fiber weavings have played an important role in Andean society since the first evidence of human occupation in western South America. In the Inca Empire, textiles were used to establish important political and social distinctions. For example, extravagant, heavily embroidered weavings were used as mummy-bundle wrappings for the most important people in the village, whose status merited the hours upon hours of painstaking needlework dedicated to their protection and glorification in death. The Inca Empire especially used textiles in political transactions, as coercive payments, gifts, and rewards, to indicate the loyalty of the conquered, and to maintain social hierarchy. In all pre- and post-Conquest Andean cultures, social status and role were visually designated through the type of textiles worn and carried. Finally, as the ultimate measure of importance in the pre-Columbian world, high-quality textiles themselves were “killed” as sacrifices. The Incas took tapestries woven by the best weavers and ritually burned them in Cuzco, Peru as daily sacrifices to the sun.
Recently, anthropologists, art historians, and archaeologists have studied cloth as symbolizing ideas about kinship, ethnicity, gender, age, economic status, and more. In the last fifteen years, interest has focused on textiles as a system of communication. The Incas were able to transmit the knowledge, which was necessary for the maintenance of their Empire, without the use of an alphabet. Their textiles communicated concepts concerning seasonal time, agricultural practices and mythic history. The motifs woven into fiber functioned as a graphic system of communication. Even today in Andean communities where textiles are still woven and worn as daily dress, one can see the Inca tradition of using iconography as a record of knowledge.
In rural areas girls still learn to weave before they reach puberty, and women spend nearly all their spare time spinning with a drop spindle or weaving on heddle looms. Prior to Spanish colonization, llama and alpaca wool were the materials of choice, but sheep’s wool is now the most readily available and least expensive medium. These beautiful and practical creations are true works of art. Today, woven cloth is still used for making ponchos, belts, and other clothing; however, it has also extended to cover a variety of rugs and tapestries. Traditionally worked alpaca wool is in great demand for sweaters, quadruple the price at home, as they are popular among foreigners traveling through Latin America. Hand woven cloth makes special gifts for friends and family, and a hanging tapestry is a beautiful reminder of the adventure abroad.