Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles

Modern Bolivia

When the Spanish invaded the Americas, beginning with Columbus’ accidental landfall in 1492, they brought a completely different culture and worldview. Regarding textiles, the Spanish used floor looms on which lengths of cloth were woven, then cut into pieces to make fitted, tailored garments. This could not be farther from the indigenous American approach to weaving. Amerindians wove on smaller looms (either backstrap or frame) and the cloth was woven to shape and never cut. Simple garments sewn together from usually two different rectangular cloths had sufficed for millennia in the Americas. From the indigenous people’s point of view, finished cloth was alive; it was an extension of the person wearing it and cutting was tantamount to killing it.

Tapestry was the most prestigious technique in the Andes when the Spanish arrived. Since Europeans valued it as well, they took over the tapestry workshops and commissioned the new Catholic religious and royal European designs. Such foreign motifs as the horse (here and here; and a Guna one here), which was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish, began to appear in new formats such as rugs, furniture covers, and coats of arms.

Local weavers also expanded on another technique known as “warp patterning” (examples of warp patterning in the exhibition are Pronunciation Icon llikllas here, here, here, and here; and ponchos here and here) to make their own traditional garments. In fact, all the 19th- and 20th- century examples in the exhibition are warp patterned. In this technique, it is the warp threads that are visible, as opposed to the weft, and are often arrayed in alternating colors so that certain threads could be brought forward to make intricate patterns. The Spanish did not understand or demand such cloths, which developed into the very sophisticated indigenous art form still practiced with consummate skill today. These shawls, dresses, and ponchos take months to complete and are worn with great pride by Pronunciation Icon Aymara and Pronunciation Icon Quechua descendants of the Inka in Bolivia and Perú today.

Post-Hispanic Bolivian women’s dress has retained many ancient elements. The woman’s shoulder mantle (lliklla in Quechua and Pronunciation Icon iscayo in Aymara) has continued in use from pre-Hispanic through colonial, modern, and contemporary periods. Yet before the arrival of the Europeans, women in highland Bolivia and Perú wore their shoulder mantles over long, loose, rectangular, pinned, wrapped dresses. Since this type of dress went against the colonists’ standards of modesty—sometimes exposing shoulders and legs—the Spanish imposed their long, gathered skirts.

Besides the gathered skirt, the Spanish introduction of the horse meant that the traditional man’s tunic, a shirt sewn up the sides, was too restrictive and, thus, the poncho (man’s poncho, boy’s poncho) was born. Whether new or old types, early 19th-century garments were made from the abundant silky coat of the Pronunciation Icon alpaca. Dyes were natural, so the colors appear somewhat muted and include a more limited palette. However, to achieve lasting fiber color from plants alone is an impressive feat, involving many participants, esoteric botanical knowledge, and hard work. In this area of the southern high planes, or Pronunciation Icon altiplano region at more than 13,000 feet of altitude, dye-producing plants are scarce. Therefore, a great deal of long-distance gathering, trading, and transporting was necessary to create colors of thread beyond the white, browns, and black of the animals’ fur itself.

From the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th centuries, the materials and dyes used to manufacture these garments changed drastically. Although the sheep introduced by the Spanish initially struggled to survive the high altitudes, their coarser hair began to be used by the middle of the century and became dominant by its end. Colors become brighter and brighter over time as well. This is mainly due to new dyes (chemically extracted aniline colorants) that were discovered in the mid-19th century. These widely available novel elements were accepted since they saved time and often cost. Furthermore, they yielded brighter colors than had been previously possible and the Andean aesthetic as a whole has always favored the most brilliant hues.

Thus, the evolving mixture of materials and dyes in more recent Andean garments should not be interpreted simply as the degradation of some former “purity,” but rather acknowledged as an expression of the indigenous worldview in which new and stronger colors were already valued. Various reasons may account for this love of intense coloration: the way it shows dyeing prowess and therefore is prestigious; the religious orientation toward visions in which colors are intensified; and the fact that nature’s colors in the desert and mountains of the Andean area are muted, so colorful clothing stands out particularly well.

Elements from the early period of independence (after 1825) and now the global world appear throughout 20th-century Andean textiles. Like the cutwork of the Guna of Panamá, Andeans embraced their multicultural world in their textile arts. Motifs such as guitars and horses (belts, Pronunciation Icon coca bag) are definitely Spanish references, yet llamas (belt, doublecloth) and geometric patterns (poncho, 19th century lliklla, two 20th century llikllas, Pronunciation Icon ch'uspa, Pronunciation Icon incuña) reflect age-old subjects. Indeed, some of the oldest practices still persisted. Indigo and cochineal, producing blues and reds respectively, were still valued throughout the 20th century. These highly prestigious colors remained preeminent and the long history of learning to master their idiosyncrasies still holds value in the face of synthetic competitors.

Contemporary Andean textiles are woven to satisfy a number of different needs: clothing, ceremonies, tourist demand for “traditional” textiles, and a rapidly developing haute couture industry that incorporates hand-woven fabrics into contemporary-style clothing. In general, new demands placed on weavers have not necessarily decreased the quality of their work; rather, it has increased the scope of their work and their economic opportunities.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of contemporary weavers expanding their repertoire is the fact that forty Aymara weavers have been trained to weave strands of elastic metal called nitinol into occluders used to close the holes in a patients’ hearts. This innovative device was developed by Bolivian cardiologist Franz Freudenthal several years ago for children with congenital heart problems. Because of their life-long training as weavers, they are uniquely suited to this work.

In the 21st century, clothing that has been worn by indigenous people for millennia has survived as weavers incorporate new materials and designs into their work. Belts are still worn and ancient techniques such as complementary warp and doublecloth persist. Yet the dyes may be neon pink or green and imagery may now include futuristic robots such as “R2D2.” Some cloth objects have lost their original function, becoming table runners or wall hangings for the tourist market. 

Read the essay on Modern Bolivia, "Capturing the Rainbow," by Shelley A. Burian, M.A.

Browse the Works in this Gallery: Modern Bolivia

Learn about Natural Dyeing in the Andes:

Interview with Potolo Weaver Ramona Contreras:

Chosen Warp Weaving with Ramona Contreras:

Explore the Views of the Exhibition Galleries