Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Openwork Headcloth Fragment with Zigzags



Openwork Headcloth Fragment with Zigzags


Unlike today’s synthetic dyes that can produce any color— whether dark, light, or even florescent—in pre-Industrial times certain hues and values (colors and their relative darkness) were more difficult to attain than others. Using natural indigo leaves to produce “navy” blue, as seen in this cotton textile that is between 600 and 1,000 years old, is a technical feat. Indigo is a colorant that only sits of the surface of fibers, particularly smooth cotton which lacks the scales of alpaca wool.

Only repeated dipping and drying build up layers of blue on top of the thread; the dark, solid blue of the piece at left attests to many successful dippings. Specialists in dyeing with indigo existed among the Chancay textile artists, who pioneered this lacey openwork method as well. The challenges posed by indigo dyeing, and the difficulty in achieving a deep shade made blue the most prestigious color in ancient times.

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes, Central Coast




Late Intermediate Period, ca. 1000-1470 AD



Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Michael McKelvey, 2017

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