The Tapestry Weavings of the Incas
To presume I can impart the Inca history of tapestry weaving in a blog post is of course absurd. I won’t pretend I can even chip away at the surface, but I will try to extract the salient points to give you a sense of what tapestry meant to this huge and ancient culture.
It is important to note than only more modern cultures such as the Renaissance Europeans used cartoons (full-sized drawings placed behind the warp threads). For the three thousand years that came before weavers used earlier pieces and their memories to create tapestries and were not always slavishly tied to past weavings. They were allowed to play with motifs, which simply means that tapestry styles would have evolved over time. From the beginning to the end of the Inca Empire.
The Inca Empire extended 2,500 miles along Western Coast/and the Andean mountain range of South America. It was a big place and it lasted from the 13th century until they were conquered by the Spanish in 1572. However, after this period the Inca tapestries did not disappear overnight. In fact, there became a fusion period where the Inca and Spanish traditions merged.
The Incas did not have a written language so their main form of recorded communication came through the objects they created. Therefore, one can presume that their tapestries spoke volumes about their culture and their stories. The symbols in the tapestry would communicate concepts of time, agricultural practices and their mythical history. You can see in their tapestry this graphic system of communication which carries on into the Andean tapestries of today.
An ancient Inca textile taken from a burial site (I could not find exact date). You have seen these symbols in so many other places! Many of the Inca textiles did not survive because they were burned in order to keep them away from the Spanish. However, many pieces have survived in burial sites.
The Incas would have used either a back-strap loom or an upright frame loom for creating tapestry. The same requirements for a tapestry loom existed then as today: even and high tension. I assume that larger tapestries would have been created on the upright loom and smaller tapestries or accents for clothing would have been woven on the much more portable back strap loom.
The dyes used in Inca tapestries were extracted from minerals, insects, plants, shells, no different from the sources of natural dyes today. Each color symbolizes something. For example, green represents the rain forest and all who inhabits it; black means both creation and death; yellow could mean gold or corn; purple signified the Mama Oclla, the founding mother or the Inca race, because it was considered the first color in the rainbow (http://www.ancient.eu/article/791/).
What I love about the Inca tapestries is the level of detail and the precision. It’s as if time did not factor into their weaving. It’s no wonder that the weaving tradition of the Incas is considered to be the strongest of any culture in the Americas.
I for one would love to be able to see these works of art in person. My eyes want to capture the detail, the joins and the shading and building up of shapes. I want to imagine the weaver at her loom (and yes, females did the weaving). If could see a linear arrangement of those textiles from 3,000 years ago to the present, I could see for myself the evolution in style, symbols and even colors. Which leads me to this thought: how many cultures’ histories could be told just by looking at the textiles they created?