Weaving Communities of Practice

A journey through the world of Andean textiles

Beyond the most well known tourist attractions of Machu Picchu and the Nazca lines, the Andean region hosts a less obvious hidden treasure: Andean textiles, products of one of the richest, oldest and continuous weaving traditions in the world.

Pre-Columbian Andean societies once buried their distinguished deceased ancestors wrapped in finely-woven textiles. As the Pacific coastal regions of Peru, Chile and Ecuador are amongst the driest in the world, most of these ancient fabrics are still extremely well preserved, even after thousands of years.

These archaeological specimens offer researchers an exceptionally valuable resource, providing an array of information about ancient Andean weaving techniques and structures, as well as their refined iconography. And encoded in their weavings is a treasure trove of information about the ancient use of their land, resources, regional and historical identities.

The ability to compare these textiles produced many centuries ago with specimens made during colonial and contemporary times is also very important. While Andean weavers incorporated and adapted the techniques of Spanish colonisers, their traditions as exemplified in these specimens still bear the influence of pre-Columbian ways of weaving.

Indeed, weaving is so embedded in the Andean way of life that the practice of making and using textiles must be understood in the context of indigenous rituals, beliefs and views of the world. For example, it is common to find Andean women chewing coca leaves as a form of ritual before and during the act of weaving.

For historical reasons, many of the most significant archaeological and ethnographic textile specimens have been scattered in museums across the world. Until now, researchers interested in working on these textiles have been faced with a daunting task given the global spread of these unique materials across Latin America, Europe and the United States. Fortunately, this problem has now been addressed, thanks to a pioneering multidisciplinary project led by researchers from Birkbeck, University of London. They have created an online resource providing open access to over 700 digitized samples of Andean textiles and weaving instruments produced in Bolivia, Peru and Chile from 600 CE to the present (www.weavingcommunities.org).

The Weaving Communities of Practice project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in the UK, investigated the relationship between textiles, culture and identity in the Andes. It was led by Luciana Martins, of Birkbeck’s Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (CILAVS), with Denise Arnold of the Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Aymara (ILCA) in La Paz, Bolivia, Sven Helmer and Alex Poulovassilis of Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems.

This multidisciplinary and transnational team, including archaeologists, anthropologists, weavers, visual culture, ontology and computer science experts, has created a detailed ‘anatomy’ of each textile sample in 3D, allowing researchers to visualize weaving structures in detail and much more precisely. The researchers also investigated the complex chain of activities, instruments, resources, peoples, places and knowledges involved in the production of textiles, making this data accessible to a wider audience. Understood as a technological process, weaving is an activity that has significant impact on local peoples and their environment.

The project brought together materials from 12 museum collections and textile archives in the British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum in the UK, and throughout the Andean region (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). In total, project researchers documented over 300 archaeological textiles (ca. 600-1532 AD), 50 historical textiles (1532-1900), and 200 ethnographic textiles (1901-present).

The completion of this project has created a unique and original digital resource that will be used not only by archaeologists and historians, but also by museum curators, contemporary weavers and the fashion industry. Most importantly, it will also benefit weavers’ communities in Latin America by drawing attention to the importance of their work and highlighting local knowledges and traditions. The hope is that these ancient techniques, practiced for millennia, will survive and thrive in the face of the many economic and social changes wrought by globalization.

The project was designed to contribute to current curatorial practice and heritage policy by taking into account the points of view and terminology of Andean weavers themselves. Researchers emphasized the idea of the ‘living’ textile, product of and vehicle for traditions which are actively engaged with contemporary issues. For local weavers, meanwhile, fashioning a textile requires constant innovation, involving a healthy competition between distinct generations of weavers of the same village, or between weavers of neighboring regions.

Weaving communities of practice has the potential to inspire a new generation of contemporary weavers, and the fashion and creative industries more generally. The study of the iconography and techniques of Andean weaving offers fascinating insights into the complexity and sophistication of pre-Columbian textile production, thereby sustaining a live tradition for the benefit of future generations.

Cristiana Bertazoni is founder member and researcher at Centro de Estudos Mesoamericanos e Andinos at the University of São Paulo http://www.usp.br/cema || Luciana Martins is Director of the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies at Birkbeck, University of London http://www.bbk.ac.uk/cilavs

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