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Textile Traditions of Mesoamerica and the Andes

Textile Traditions of Mesoamerica and the Andes
An Anthology

In this volume, anthropologists, art historians, fiber artists, and technologists come together to explore the meanings, uses, and fabrication of textiles in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from Precolumbian times to the present.

October 1996
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527 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 | 61 b&w photos, 31 figures |

In this volume, anthropologists, art historians, fiber artists, and technologists come together to explore the meanings, uses, and fabrication of textiles in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from Precolumbian times to the present. Originally published in 1991 by Garland Publishing, the book grew out of a 1987 symposium held in conjunction with the exhibit "Costume as Communication: Ethnographic Costumes and Textiles from Middle America and the Central Andes of South America" at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University.

  • Preface to the 1996 Edition
  • Contributors
  • I. Introduction: The Communicative Power of Cloth and Its Creation (Margot Blum Schevill)
  • II. Mesoamerica
    • Chapter One. Spinning and Weaving as Female Gender Identity in Post-Classic Mexico (Sharisse D. McCafferty and Geoffrey G. McCafferty)
    • Chapter Two. Communicative Imagery in Guatemalan Indian Dress (Cherri M. Pancake)
    • Chapter Three. A Line at a Time: Innovative Patterning in the Isthmus of (Isthmian) Mexico (Pamela Scheinman)
    • Chapter Four. Dress and Civil-Religious Hierarchy in Sololá, Guatemala (Guisela Mayén)
    • Chapter Five. Dress and the Human Landscape in Guatemala: The Case of Tecpán, Guatemala (Carol Hendrickson)
    • Chapter Six. Woman's Costume as a Code in Comalapa, Guatemala (Linda Asturias de Barrios)
  • III. Central Andes of South America
    • Chapter Seven. We Are Sons of Atahualpa and We Will Win: Traditional Dress in Otavalo and Saraguro, Ecuador (Lynn A. Meisch)
    • Chapter Eight. Regional Dress of the Colca Valley, Peru: A Dynamic Tradition
    • (Blenda Femenias)
    • Chapter Nine. Nature Versus Culture: The Image of the Uncivilized Wild-Man in Textiles from the Department of Cuzco, Peru (Lee Anne Wilson)
    • Chapter Ten. Clothes and Identity in the Central Andes: Province of Abancay, Peru (Raquel Ackerman)
    • Chapter Eleven. Ethnic Dress and Calcha Festivals, Bolivia (Mary Ann Medlin)
  • IV. Weaving and Dyeing Technology
    • Chapter Twelve. Dual-Lease Weaving: An Andean Loom Technology (Ed Franquemont)
    • Chapter Thirteen. Resist Dyeing in Mexico: Comments on Its History, Significance, and Prevalence (Virginia Davis)
    • Chapter Fourteen. The Ikat Shawl Traditions of Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador (Laura Martin Miller)
    • Chapter Fifteen. The Dyes Used in Guatemalan Textiles: A Diachronic Approach (Robert S. Carlsen and David A. Wenger)
  • V. The Marketing of Textiles
    • Chapter Sixteen. Export Markets and Their Effects on Indigenous Craft Production: The Case of the Weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico (Lynn Stephen)
    • Chapter Seventeen. The Marketing of Maya Textiles in Highland Chiapas, Mexico (Walter F. Morris, Jr.)
  • VI. Conclusion
    • Chapter Eighteen. Beyond Bricolage: Women and Aesthetic Strategies in Latin American Textiles (Janet Catherine Berlo)
  • Additional References
  • Glossary
  • Index

Margot Blum Schevill is a textile consultant for the P. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Janet Catherine Berlo is Professor of Art History at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Edward B. Dwyer is Associate Provost at the Rhode Island School of Design.


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Tantos símbolos, cábalas, sabidurías, astrales y cálculos se urden en sus telas.

So many symbols, spells, sayings, stars and conjectures are warped in their cloth.

Miguel Angel Asturias (1974)


The creation of cloth for clothing and other purposes has always been a main concern and occupation of human beings. What we wear transforms our appearance. We speak silently, signaling layers of meaning through our clothing. Unfortunately the study of the textile systems and clothing of indigenous peoples worldwide has been largely overlooked by anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians except for a handful of important works. Andean scholarship has focused on the brilliant and technically complex archaeological fabrics from coastal Peru and not on cloth created by people living in the present and not too distant past. In the past ten years, however, there has been increased interest in looking at the material culture of indigenous peoples. Researchers have begun to view clothing, body adornment, textiles, and cloth production as powerful indicators of social structure, ritual patterns, economic networks, and a commitment to the traditional life—what the Maya of Mexico and Guatemala call costumbre. This new interest may reflect what a textile dealer said at a recent conference: "That's all that's left: no more sculpture, pottery, paintings!"

Linguist and structural ethnographer Petr Bogatyrev, ethnohistorian John V. Murra, and semiotician Roland Barthes have made important contributions to a theoretical framework for ethnographic textile studies.

Bogatyrev (1971), in his work on folk costume in Moravian Slovakia, found that folk costume conveyed rank, class, status, region, religion, and age. Thus clothing functioned as practical, aesthetic, erotic, and even magical phenomena. Murra (1962) defined the complex role that cloth played for the Inca. S tored in large warehouses, cloth reflected wealth, served as a medium of exchange, provided tribute, and was used in sacrificial and funerary contexts as well. Barthes explored "the transformational myth which seems attached to all mythic reflection on clothing" (1983:256). A garment can magically transform the person, but the person also transforms the garment and is expressed through it. There is a dialectical exchange between person and garment, an awareness of self and the transformed self simultaneously.

Although Barthes contended that fashion trends remained out of history, I have suggested that evolution in dress reflects the nature of the times (Schevill 1986:3-4). Jane Schneider (1987) commented on the effect that political and economic shifts in great transregional systems of interaction have on centers of art and their styles. It follows that the rhythm and nature of clothing evolution may be responsive to these shifts as well.

In 1985 Annette B. Weiner and Schneider organized a conference, sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, entitled "Cloth and the Organization of Human Experience." Participating scholars expressed multiple views of cloth as "an economic commodity, a critical object in social exchange, an objectification of ritual intent, and an instrument of political power" (Schneider and Weiner 1986:178). In their recent publication, an outgrowth of the conference, Weiner and Schneider comment on "the properties of cloth that underlie its social and political contributions, the ritual and social domains in which people acknowledge these properties and give them meaning, and the transformations of meaning over time" (1989:1).

Patricia Anawalt, through her explorations of pre-Hispanic, Mesoamerican clothing, has developed a model for the study of the basic pan-Mesoamerican male and female costume based on construction and classification of garments (1981). She gleaned information from all available sources, including painted books or codices, sculptures and paintings, chronicles of the Spanish explorers, priests, and travelers, and the small body of archaeological textiles available. Anawalt's model has proved useful for hypothesizing the pre-Columbian clothing utilized in areas of Mesoamerica, like the highlands of Guatemala, that lacks the richness of visual sources found in Mexico. Ethnographic fieldwork in Puebla has provided Anawalt with contemporary costume information, which confirms the persistence of certain prehistoric dress forms over a four-hundred-year period.

The contributors to this volume, as well as the symposium participants, have carried forward many of the ideas presented above. They have developed their own interpretations of the communicative power of cloth and clothing, thus enriching the study of ethnographic textile systems. Walter F. Morris, Jr., proposes that, for the Maya, cloth is memory and that Maya cosmology is symbolized by the designs on their clothing. Elayne Zorn argues that, while cloth may be read as a text, it also serves as a meaningful object with social functions that are communicative, poetic, economic, and political . For the Quechua and Aymara, Ed Franquemont finds that the creation of cloth served as a link to their pre-Columbian ancestors: cloth functioned as historical homage. John Cohen observes that the textile system remains an integral part of Andean cultural patterns: "Tradition for its own sake is the outstanding cultural determinant for weaving in the sierra today."

Walter F. Morris, Jr., and Lynn Stephen focus on the commoditization of textiles, consumer-producer relations, and the political economy created by a public eager to buy and collect textiles. And Janet Catherine Berlo perceives textile systems as part of intercultural systems of exchange, not merely a syncretization of indigenous and nonindigenous traditions but as a continuing creative process.

Textile studies of the past emphasized several research approaches: broad overviews, the one-costume-one-town taxonomy, or comparative studies of neighboring villages or regions. The scholarship presented here is indicative of a shift of the pendulum towards material culture studies while utilizing methodologies from other disciplines. The direction in Andean and Mesoamerican anthropological studies has been away from chronology to a more holistic interpretation combining art historical, ethnohistorical, and archaeological methodologies with those of anthropology.

One of the purposes of this volume is to show that the study of cloth, clothing, and the creation of cloth can be an important index for understanding human culture and history. The diversity of subject matter and the diversity in analytical approaches to the data offer a rich blending of information. The essayists are symbolic, social, and cultural anthropologists as well as art historians, archaeologists, and textile artists. Methodologies range from structural, art historical, ethnohistorical, symbolic, and reflexive analyses to synchronic and diachronic, etic and emic, ethnoaesthetic, and technical analyses. Although broad and diverse topics are presented in these papers, certain themes recur frequently.

The Nature of Change

Indigenous, traditional communities have been viewed as rooted in the past, with little historical change occurring from within. The assumption was that the lives of the inhabitants were mediated by cultural patterns or costumbre. Innovation was not encouraged. Contemporary researchers have found this premise to be misleading. Instead, the non-static, receptive response to new ideas, an ongoing process in village life, is a major topic in contemporary writings. Sometimes change is imposed from without. Mary Ann Medlin finds that when the men from Calcha, Bolivia, go to work outside of their communities or on trading trips, village clothing sets them apart from the non-Indian world. The resulting discrimination became a motive for change to western clothing when traveling.

Change is often initiated by the community itself. Carol Hendrickson and Laura Miller explore the relationship between tradition and conservatism exemplified by what women choose to create and wear. Local fashions are an important consideration. Both Pamela Scheinman and Walter F. Morris, Jr., discuss traditional dress as a form of display, and they comment on women's admiration for fresh interpretations of traditional patterns and of their desire to wear the latest styles of dress for special occasions like fiestas.

Innovative techniques are discussed by Virginia Davis and Laura Miller. They analyze contemporary shawls woven with tie-dyed threads from Mexico, Ecuador, and Peru. This process, known as ikat or jaspe, may have been developed independently in the New World, or it may have been copied from Philippine textiles brought to Latin America on the Manila galleons from the mid-sixteenth century to the early nineteenth century.

In contrast, some archaic weaving techniques are still practiced in the Andes. Ed Franquemont concludes that dual-lease weaving was an indigenous, ancient, and probably widespread Andean technology. This form of weaving necessitates double heddles, which create four sheds. Pre-Columbian weavers solved design problems by adding a forked stick and a second stick to create classic, complex Andean weaves. This method is still in use by contemporary weavers.

In recent years, handicrafts have become desirable commodities throughout the world. Artisans are responding to outside influences and creating innovative as well as traditional forms. Overwhelmed by the proliferation of manufactured items, the Western industrialized public, however, is buying the "old ways" along with the items of contemporary design. Concerning Teotitlán del Valle, Mexico, Lynn Stephen comments on the flexibility of the skilled weavers in adapting to changes in textile designs. In response to the growth of this village's export market, there is a variety of styles reflecting American and European taste. Traditional designs are not those of the Zapotec of Oaxaca but of the Navajo of the Southwestern United States. These skilled weavers are able to reproduce on the loom any design that the customer wants, including works by Picasso, Miro, and Escher.

Does the act of wearing traditional dress imply conservatism and isolation? On the contrary, argues Blenda Femenias. For the wealthy inhabitants of the Colca Valley of Peru "it (ropa bordado or traditional clothing) seems to indicate an awareness of various roles individuals must play to survive and prosper in a changing world." Femenias also shows how change in cloth and costume production can be analyzed from an historical perspective. She traces the historical development of the cloth production system known as the obraje or workshop system. While most Inca weavers were women, the Spanish introduced the treadle loom and conscripted men to weave under oppressive and crowded working conditions. Some Mesoamerican and Andean communities still have small workshops in which men weave wool and cotton yardage on treadle looms. This cloth is bought by indigenous peoples and used for skirts, pants, and other tailored garments.

Lynn Meisch looks at the development of traditional dress in Otavalo and Saraguro, Ecuador. She suggests the term "survivals" for older costume elements that continue to be worn with modern clothing. Gradual changes take place as a new style or garment becomes traditional, and the traditional style or garment becomes archaic and eventually disappears.

Local Distinctions and Concepts

The development of distinctive regional or town-specific clothing may be due to the geographic isolation created by the mountains inhabited by the majority of indigenous peoples. The Andes and the mountain ranges of Guatemala and Mexico physically separate communities from their neighbors. Styles become codified and are repeated with slight innovations due to the personal whim of the weaver. Stylistic changes evolve as a result of trade networks that bring geographically distant groups together, and new techniques and materials are exchanged and eventually assimilated.

Cherri Pancake defines Guatemalan clothing as "locative: graphic elements (that) symbolically describe 'spaces' as would a map." In addition to design motifs, shapes, and colors, another indicator is the way a garment is worn or constructed. Clothing is not always town specific, for a weaver may admire the huipil of a nearby town and create one for herself, indicating her knowledge of the world outside the town.

Linda Asturias de Barrios studies the pan-community styles of one Guatemalan municipality, Comalapa. By eliciting the criteria that the women themselves use to evaluate fine traje, she learned that clothing functions as a semiological code that conveys socially relevant information. Guisela Mayén analyzes male traje in another Guatemalan community, Sololá, where rank in the predominantly male civil-religious hierarchy, which governs the indigenous population, is indicated by certain costume elements and how they are worn.

Although there may be two or more textile systems—indigenous and nonindigenous—functioning simultaneously in the towns and regions covered in these essays, only Carol Hendrickson and Raquel Ackerman discuss the hierarchical ordering of nonindigenous dress. For Guatemalan vestido or ladino dress, the most desirable clothing is imported from the United States; next might be clothing from Guatemala City, and least desirable are products sold locally. In the Andes, the city dweller, the mestiza, and the peasant all have specialized clothing expressing differences in wealth, orientation, and the desire for social status.

Lee Anne Wilson and Ed Franquemont integrate the concept of Andean complementary dualism into their analyses. The dual structure of village organization, with reciprocal exchanges between both parts, developed from an Inca worldview and is mirrored in the act of weaving. The loom is set up with positive-negative, two-thread sets of balanced pairs. The weaver holds in her mind the reverse image of what she is weaving. The two halves of the textile are arranged symmetrically. Two-ply yarns are utilized because all elements require a mate.

Wilson reports that myths recall mock battles between ch'unchos, the naked wild inhabitants of the dark jungle, and collas, clothed llama and alpaca herders from the altiplano. The image of the ch'uncho is woven into textiles and is a reminder of the Andean dialectic of the opposing yet combining forces of hanan—the right side, masculinity, and superiority—and hurin—the left side, femininity, and inferiority.

Ritual Uses of Cloth and Its Creation

Sharisse and Geoffrey McCafferty study Post-Classic spindle whorls from Cholula, Mexico, and combine their archaeological data with historical information. They find that, for the Aztec, spinning and weaving symbology were connected with pre-Columbian goddesses. Spindle whorls were elaborately decorated with motifs related to deities responsible for sexuality, childbirth, and major events in the female life cycle. The attendant priestesses knew herbal and magical methods for conception and contraception. Therefore, through female discourse, women learned to control fertility and childbirth. Spinning and weaving helped to define femininity. A woman who spun but never wove was equated with infertility.

In Abancay, Peru, Raquel Ackerman observes that cloth is central to the definition of self. It may replace the individual and be used in witchcraft to harm the owner. To pacify the virgins and saints, their statues are periodically dressed and re-dressed either physically or metaphorically. Each rite of passage requires a new set of clothes. For death rituals, the best clothes of the deceased are placed on top of the shoulder cloth to reproduce the dead body.

Social Uses of Cloth and Its Creation

Mary Anne Medlin finds that the creation of textiles and the wearing of traditional dress at fiesta time is fundamental to Calcha ethnic identity. The acquisition and creation of fiesta dress indicate that the young woman is interested in the opposite sex and looking for a lover. Wearing fiesta dress represents adulthood and integration into local political and economic groups. Although ethnic clothing was customary in the past, now it is reserved for marriages, baptisms, and fiestas. Handwoven cloth is given at social events such as marriages, hamlet plantings of corn, and group celebrations.

At the Indian Queen contest in Tecpán, Guatemala, Carol Hendrickson notes that the contestants are not limited to wearing their own village-specific traje tipico. Instead, the winner usually dons fine, older style traje, sometimes from another village in the municipality, demonstrating both preparación, knowledge of what is correct, and pan-Indian ethnic pride.

Commoditization of Textiles

For the Zapotec women of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, traditional clothing is a financial investment and signals the wealth of the wearer. Pamela Scheinman looks at the production of traditional blouses by seamstresses working on old model, miniature Singer treadle machines. Novelty confers status on the wearer and new colors and designs appear each year. These blouses are sold in stores and market stalls but the finest ones, worn at fiestas and special events, are commissioned.

Backstrap weaving is a labor-intensive occupation. Materials are costly and often difficult to obtain. Weavers seldom receive compensation for time invested. Walter F. Morris, Jr., writes that, when a fine Maya weaving from Chiapas was marketed like an art object, a fair price was forthcoming. The middleman in a store or market situation needs to buy a textile cheaply in order to add on a percentage for profit. Since art collectors pay premium prices, gallery owners and dealers can sell fine textiles for more and still earn a commission. One approach that has helped Maya weavers in Chiapas is the development of the co-op Sna Jolobil through which the weaver gets paid directly for her work. She may receive materials in advance without paying for them. Older textiles are available for study purposes. Classes in natural dye technology and conservation are available. This co-op has contributed to the fine quality of weaving being produced in Chiapas, and a reciprocal relationship between traje and costumbre persists.

Suzanne Baizerman explores the paradox of "authentic" traditional art. Traditional, for the nonindigenous public, seems to imply something handmade and therefore superior to a machine-crafted object. "Authentic" refers to older-style native art forms and production methods. Criteria include one-of-a-kind products, use of natural dyes, and handwoven. The nonindigenous emphasis on "authentic" art led to a revival of the Indian Arts and Crafts movement spearheaded by Anglos who have become collectors. However, these collectors pay little attention to the social realities and values of the artists, who are no longer weaving for home production but for an elite few or for a market meant to satisfy Western popular tastes and budgets. Middlemen play important roles in defining traditional or "authentic" textile art and tourist textile art. The latter category, for which Baizerman proposes the term "boundary" art, includes small, portable, inexpensive items which are produced in quantity and marketed as craft items rather than art objects.

When the Mexican government initiated a marketing campaign that expanded national and foreign markets of native crafts, it assumed an entrepreneurial role. Lynn Stephen studies the effect on the production of wool blankets and rugs in Teotitlán del Valle, an historic weaving town. The local craft industry depends on family and compadrazgo or godparent relationships. Merchants have control over the materials and give the work to weaving families with whom they have kinship ties; these weavers produce only for them. Business negotiations between local merchants and importers take place in Teotitlán. Therefore, control of resources, capital, and labor remains within the community. Ethnic pride is expressed through textiles, for the weavers think of themselves as "the original Zapotecs" who continue to weave in the tradition of their ancestors.

Gender Roles

Both men and women are involved in Mesoamerican and Andean textile systems. Pre-Columbian weavers were predominantly women. As discussed above, under Spanish domination, treadle-loom weaving became men's work. Janet Catherine Berlo points out that, through contact with the Spanish, men learned their language. Women, however, continued to weave clothing and cloth on their backstrap looms in the home environment and did not learn Spanish. Women became the conservators of weaving lore and continued to wear traje, while men, dressed in western-style clothing, interacted with the Spanish and other foreigners. Both men and women, however, were involved in the marketing of textiles.

Lynn Stephen finds that, with the growth of the textile market in Teotitlán and the availability of prespun wool, women also began to weave on the treadle loom, formerly restricted to men. Households became a kind of production unit with specific tasks allocated to each member. In the highlands of Guatemala, if the woman is a well-known weaver, all the members of her family, including the young boys, learn backstrap weaving.

Virginia Davis comments that, in the past, tie-dyed rebozos or shawls were woven on backstrap looms by women in Teotla and Tenancingo, Puebla. When textile production became specialized in the 1930s, men began producing rebozos utilizing a two-harness foot-loom, while women specialized in textile finishing.

Andean men, women, and children all spin, an occupation that can be accomplished while tending animals. What they weave, however, may be gender and age specific. In Chinchero, Peru, men produce slings and cords for llama halters. Women weave shoulder cloths or llikllas and other clothing elements, while young girls create narrow ties or hakimas as their first textile.

Textiles as Text

Technical analyses of red, purple, and blue dyes in Guatemalan textiles have made it possible to read, or what Robert Carlsen and David Wenger call "fingerprint," documented weavings in museum and private collections. Provenience and date of manufacture are correlated with data derived from ethnohistorical sources, concerning the economic and political conditions that prevailed during the production period. By reading the textiles from these various perspectives, a more holistic picture emerges that may be useful for cross-cultural studies.

One image, the ch'uncho or wild man from the jungle, serves Lee Anne Wilson as a means of looking at Andean symbolic values. Utilizing historical chroniclers and contemporary ethnographies, she focuses on several possible interpretations of this motif, which has been woven into textiles over the past centuries. Wilson concludes that the ch'uncho image is of Inca origin and relates to pre-contact, culture-hero mythology. It continues to reflect the survival of a pre-conquest world view: textiles function as narrative.

If textiles can be read as a text, we must learn the language. Barbara and Dennis Tedlock emphasize the important role that cloth and its creation played for the ancient Maya (Tedlock and Tedlock 1985). They suggest that the key to understanding Quiché Maya symbolic modes may be through intertextuality. By relating the arts of weaving, writing, oratory, architecture, and agriculture, it is possible to achieve a holistic perception of this symbolic system from the distant past. In this volume, Janet Catherine Berlo looks at the links between weaving, agriculture, and writing. She points out that, in The Popol Vuh, the ancient sacred book of the Maya, the words "to brocade" (which means to add supplementary weft threads to the basic web) and "to plant" are synonymous. Weaving and agriculture are linked to birth and procreation: maize is born from seeds which men place in the earth with planting sticks. For the Quechua of Chinchero, Peru, the word pampa describes the agricultural plain of the altiplano and also the solid color sections of a weaving.

In conclusion, we may reflect again on the words of Miguel Angel Asturias, as he describes a Maya huipil, and consider the inevitability of change. In order to penetrate the symbols, spells, sayings, stars, and conjectures woven in cloth, textile systems must be studied in context and in relation to other systems in operation. The written word is one possibility, but the power of the visual image must not be ignored. The photographs and drawings accompanying the papers in this volume will help us to synthesize our impressions.

Why do we study textiles? Whose questions are being answered? Is it sufficient to pursue knowledge for its own sake, or is there a broader purpose which mustbe taken into account? Virginia Dominguez writes of the paradoxes of ethnological collecting (Dominguez 1986). By representing indigenous cultures in our museums, are we trying to complete a vision of ourselves? Why do we concentrate on peoples whom we perceive to be without history? Are we endeavoring to connect with our own lost past through the possession of objects of the other?

Certainly, the study of cloth and its creation, as revealed in these essays, displays the multifaceted dimensions of textiles as artistic and cultural achievements. Through textiles we see ourselves in mirrors that reflect the history of changing civilizations.



“This is a vital, worthwhile book that fills an important need and is very much in phase with current anthropological thinking.... This anthology will be particularly rewarding to readers interested in traditional indigenous communities and the insight gleaned from a detailed consideration of cloth and clothing.”
American Anthropologist

“The essays in this book are informative and a pleasure to read. Collectively they make the reader want to journey to Mesoamerica and the Andes to view in person the cloth and clothing of the indigenous communities.”
Latin American Anthropology Review


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