The Inca, of course, are the best known of all pre-Columbian Andean cultures and were the inheritors of a long textile tradition that had already been highly developed. As conquerors who brought many disparate people under their reign, the Inca also brought together a variety of different styles and techniques into their repertoire. They particularly respected Chimú and Chancay textiles and promoted their production; this is perhaps why so many of the designs woven by Andean weavers today can be traced back to the Chimú.[i]
For the Inca, as for the cultures that came before them, textiles functioned in a wide variety of ways and were a critical part of this pre-Columbian civilization. According to the quipu, a textile technology that stored information via a hierarchy of colored knots, we know that the Inca had a very specific order of importance in their empire. First were the nobility, second the alpacas, vicuñas and llamas that produced fiber, and third the textiles themselves. Later in the list came the gold and silver that were so precious to the Spanish.[ii]
Textiles were not just a beautiful art form, they also played many key social and cultural roles in the Inca Empire. The Inca had no form of currency as we conceive of the concept today, but instead used textiles in a ritualized custom of gift giving to assert control over their subject groups. Generals were also ‘paid’ in textiles and stripping an enemy of their clothing symbolized defeat and death.[iii] The Inca did not develop a written language, but instead used the quipu to record information and expressed themselves through the rich iconography of their textiles. Via iconography and other details, social order was maintained in the empire as only certain groups were allowed to wear certain techniques and designs.[iv] Textiles were even critical for architecture. The Inca were the inventors of the suspension bridge which was essential for spanning steep valleys and treacherous rivers to connect a vast road system that stretched the length of the Andes.
To ensure the steady production of the fine textiles that the empire required to function, the Inca established production centers throughout their territory. Much larger than any workhouse then in existence in Europe, these textile production centers were run by chosen women and men trained from a young age to be the finest weavers in the empire.[v] When the Spanish arrived these textile centers came under direct attack.
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[i] Ann Pollard Rowe, Costumes and Featherwork of the Lords of Chimor: Textiles from Peru’s North Coast, (The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C., 1984), 15-16: and, María Jesús Jiménez Díaz, “Weaving in Tahuantinsuyu-Late Horizon Textiles in the Maiman Collection,” in Weaving for the Afterlife: Peruvian Textiles from the Maiman Collection, Volume II, ed. Alfredo Rosenzweig (Israel: Kal Press Ltd., 2006), 147.
[ii] Andrea M. Heckman, Woven Sotires: Andean Textiles and Rituals, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003,) 47.
[iii] Ibid., 42.
[iv] Jan Szemiñski, “Textiles and Memory in the Inca Empire,” in Weaving for the Afterlife: Peruvian Textiles from the Maiman Collection, Volume II, ed. Alfredo Rosenzweig (Israel: Kal Press Ltd., 2006), 165.
[v] Heckman, Woven Stories, 42 -6; and, Susan A. Niles, “Artist and Empire in Inca and Colonial Times,” in To Weave for the Sun, ed. Maraget Jupe (Hudson and Thames, Inc., 1992), 51-2.