The colonial era in Peru was a time of cultural destruction and recreation, of traditions that blended together and of the wholesale subversion of indigenous culture. Textiles, as an important part of Incan culture and identity, bore a large part of this transformation and persecution. With the fall of the Inca state in 1533 came the fall of Inca infrastructure. All of the weaving centers they had established throughout their empire eventually ceased functioning. While some continued well after the fall of the empire, the Spanish eventually put an end to these centers that continued to produce independently.[i]
The Spanish moved to eradicate the production of fine textiles in the colonies because they did not want competition for their artisans at home in the Iberian peninsula. Without Incan oversight and with changes brought by the Spanish, textile quality declined. Part of this was due to the lack of Inca enforcement of special techniques and design structures. Another contributing factor was the conscious move by the Spanish to produce low-quality, uncompetitive textiles.[ii]
The Spanish set up their own system of production to create European styled cloth. This system of textile workshops, known as obrajes, was focused on producing low-quality cloth for working-class people. Rather than receive training in the refined techniques of their ancestors, the new generation of Andean artisans were trained in low quality, European style loom work.[iii]
Besides the new system of production, the Spanish also introduced new tools, equipment, and materials. The new tools and equipment included the treadle looms and reeds used in the obrajes. The new materials were sheep, silk, and metallic threads. While Incan weavers reveled in the luxury of silk and silver thread, sheep was used in low-quality textiles produced by the obrajes.[iv]
Although the Spanish attempted to eliminate fine-quality Incan textiles, weavers continued to produce traditional clothing in fine vicuña and alpaca, with silk and metallic threads as added exotic elements. These Incan garments became highly contentious political statements for the the wearer. In 1575 Viceroy Toledo, the governor of the Spanish Viceroyality of Peru, issued an ordinance that outlawed the use of Incan clothing, which had come to symbolize loyalty to a noble Incan past. Indigenous people were prodded to take on Spanish style garments instead, integrating them into the social hierarchy they represented.[v]
Many indigenous people continued to use Incan garments, however, and the Spanish again outlawed the use of Incan clothing when it became a particularly contentious issue during the rebellion of Tupac Amaru II. Tupac Amaru II, descendent of Incan nobility, led a massive and nearly successful rebellion against the Spanish in 1780. The disruption of the rebellion combined with economic woes led to Peru’s War of Independence which the country eventually won in 1826. (Independence was declared on July 28th, 1821). Despite the renewed ban on Incan clothing and textiles during the rebellion of Tupac Amru II, people continued to produce and use textiles. In a double act of rebellion, weavers created two designs of Tupac Amaru II that people continue to weave today.[vi]
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[i] Elena Phipps, Johanna Hecht, and Christina Esteras Martín. The Colonial Andes: Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530 – 1830. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004, 25.
[ii] Ibid., 25-26.
[iii] Ibid., 26.
[iv] Ibid., 26.
[v] Ibid., 27.
[vi] Andrea Heckman, ‘’Cultural Communication of Ethnicity through Clothing: The Qocha-Lake Symbol in Contemporary Textiles from Ausangate, Peru.” In Us and Them: Archeology and Ethnicity in the Andes, edited by Richard Martin Reycraft, 104-14. USA: The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 2005, 113.