Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Tunic with Birds

Chimu Shirt Sample.jpg
Chimu Shirt Sample Location.jpg


Tunic with Birds


Qumpi, what the Inka called cloth made as well as humanly possible, is a deeply Andean category of clothing. Function, such as this being a man’s shirt, was not seen as opposite of what we may call art, the most skilled, aesthetic, intentional, and meaningful cultural products. Scholars use the term “art-tool” to show that usefulness and beauty go hand-in-hand in indigenous American material culture; to coin a phrase, “art-clothing” echoes this sentiment.

Several characteristics of this shirt fit the Inka definition of qumpi, although it comes from the preceding Chimú Empire of the north coast of modern-day Perú. Scientific analyses indicate that the background light brown color is actually not the result of dyeing. This means the shirt was made from a large quantity of cotton that grows naturally in this color in Central and South America. Known as cuyuscate in present-day Guatemala (found in a spectacular 1925 blouse in the center of the Maya gallery), this unusually colored cotton has evidently been a high prestige fiber for many millennia across the indigenous Americas.

However, the brocaded birds and ocean wave motifs are made from highland trade goods, dyed animal hair thread most likely from the silky-haired alpaca, one of the hearty mountain camels. This is a hard-won fiber on the coast, and so only a small amount was available; the brocade technique maximizes colorful thread because it involves floating it above the ground cloth being woven simultaneously. Prestige is expressed by the presence of colorful camelid fiber and naturally brown cotton, showing this shirt was considered qumpi in its time.

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes, North Coast




Late Intermediate Period, ca. 1000-1470 AD


Cotton, camelid fiber

Credit Line

Ex coll. C. Clay and Virginia Aldridge

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Michael McKelvey, 2017

Technical Notes

The lightweight Chimú shirt is woven from brown cotton. While the color may have altered slightly over time, the brown is probably natural and not dyed. A few millimeters of a single thread of this cotton were removed for analysis by Direct Analysis in Real Time mass spectrometry (DART - MS). This analytical approach enables solids to be analyzed without complex preparation. Therefore, dye analysis can be performed on very small thread samples without first extracting the dye, a laborious process that requires larger samples and risks contamination, loss, etc. The DART-MS analysis was performed by Dr. Ruth Ann Armitage, Professor of Chemistry at Eastern Michigan University. Dr. Armitage noted the absence of quercetin, which is found in many brown dyes as well as the lack of gallic acid, which is often present in tannin dyes such as browns. Results from the ancient sample were also comparable to results from reference samples taken from modern textiles known to be woven from undyed natural brown cotton (the comparison objects are not included in the exhibition).

For more conservation information, please see The Threads of Time Conservation Project.

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