Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Tunic or Mantle Fragment with Multi-Color Feathers

Feathers Under Visible Light.jpg
Feathers UV Light.jpg


Tunic or Mantle Fragment with Multi-Color Feathers


Most Native Americans consider bird feathers not only beautiful, but sacred gifts from the Winged Beings since molted feathers fall on the ground as if from the celestial realm. Tropical feathers especially exhibit brilliant natural coloration. Birds’ capacity for flight is a freedom that humans cannot experience except during visionary journeys. Their superior eyesight is another reason people admire and want to assume avian powers by wearing their feathers as clothing. The wearer is not just clad in another animal’s body cover, but in shamanic thought, can actually absorb that animal’s inherent power. The shamanic religious complex is based on trance experience, which often includes meeting animals in spirit form and feeling that one has actually become an animal. Shamans often report that they fly during trance.

In the Andes, to create featherwork, rows of feathers were lined up and their quills bent over threads to hold them in place like a fringe. Overlapping many of these strings of feathers in rows creates a thick covering over the plain ground cloth. This technique mimics the way that birds’ feathers lie on their bodies.

Geographic Area

South America, Central Andes, South Coast


Ica (?)


Late Intermediate Period, ca. 1000-1470 AD


Cotton, feathers

Credit Line

Gift of the Estate of Florence Kopleff

Accession Number


Photo Credit

Photo by Bruce M. White, 2014

Technical Notes

The feather objects, including the striped featherwork fragment, were examined under ultraviolet (UV) illumination with Ellen Pearlstein, Conservator and Professor of Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. The observed UV-induced visible fluorescence can provide information about the feathers’ pigmentation as well as about the cumulative effects of light exposure. The feathers come from several different bird species and are naturally colored, not dyed. The UV-induced visible fluorescence is strongest in feathers that are protected from light by overlapping layers; the reduced fluorescence indicates light damage that may not be apparent under visible illumination.  

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

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