New technologies in the mid to late 1800s brought changes to textiles around the world. In 1856 aniline dyes were invented, followed by synthetic fibers in the early 1880s. Synthetic yarn was not readily commercially available, however, until the invention of rayon yarn in the early 1900s. Rayon yarn is easy to work with and strong. Aniline dyes are easier to use than natural dyes. They do not fade as quickly, but have a tendency to run when washed. They are much brighter than natural dyes, which made them superior in the eyes of many indigenous weavers.[i]

Bright colors were an important part of Incan aesthetics and indigenous peoples continued to value very bright textiles. As a result, most weavers readily accepted aniline dyes in their quest for brighter colored textiles. Spinning natural fibers into yarn and dyeing it was a time-consuming task. Rayon yarn came already colored. By buying pre-spun and pre-dyed rayon yarn weavers saved valuable time while easily obtaining the bright colors they preferred.

This switch from natural dyes and fibers to aniline dyes and synthetic fibers is currently a contentious topic.

I have heard people talk to my mother about natural dyes, but in reality, the powder dyes (aniline dyes) of those times were good and easy to use, so I wasn’t interested in knowing about natural dyes…[except for] indigo, which we used to have to process in fermented urine. The vendors used to bring indigo…Marcelina Callañaupa, Chinchero weaver

Some people see a loss of tradition, the abandonment of traditional materials and dyeing techniques passed down over thousands of years from pre-Incan ancestors in favor of cheap convenience. In other words, they see modern Western culture overwhelming and destroying indigenous culture. Others see indigenous peoples adapting to modern times and molding Western materials in creative and inventive ways to their own aesthetics. In this view, Andean people subvert elements of Western culture to enhance and continue a strong indigenous aesthetic and textile tradition.

Supporters of the second opinion often point out that despite the convenience of pre-spun and pre-dyed yarn, weavers still had to spend large amounts of time re-spinning acrylic yarn to make it strong enough to weave on the backstrap loom. Indigenous people took a Western product that did save some spinning time, but re-fashioned it through more work to make it of high enough quality for their own use. Indigenous artists also transformed other commercial items like ricrac, sequins and buttons into purposeful textile elements. Ricrac, sewn onto garments, represented qenqo, the zigzag designs found in nature. Weavers sewed sequins onto the surface of their textiles because they caught and reflected sunlight like the surface of a lake. While many textile designs represent lakes, Incan garments are also known for their use of small gold and silver plates that were sewn onto the surface of textiles. Like sequins, they may have been meant to catch and reflect the light as the wearer participated in rituals full of movement and dance. In a similar vein, weavers used to sew gold-colored buttons onto their jackets until they became unavailable in the market. They then switched to using the white buttons that were available.[iii]

If we put on the clothes of mestizo, almost no one can identify our origin. It is almost like we lose our identity. When we go to the big cities, this is what happens. But when we return, we wear our special clothing to incorporate ourselves back into the life of our community.Carmen Ylla, Chahuaytire weaver

All of these changes could be viewed as a loss of tradition and the abandonment of traditional materials. In a more understanding perspective, it is the shrewd adaptation to the opportunities and limitations that modern times and materials place on indigenous people. The problem with the first interpretation of cultural loss is that it sees indigenous culture as static, as an unchanging remnant left over from Incan times. In this view, any change in culture is negative and indigenous people almost helplessly look on as Western culture bombards them with change. The second argument sees indigenous people as active rather than passive, as important players in shaping their own culture which, like all cultures, is in a constant state of flux. They are not unchanged remnants of an Incan past, but a living culture that adapts to the times like all others.

Despite the debate about the use of materials, it is undeniably that we have lost much of our ability to understand Andean textiles. Racism against indigenous people created a backlash against traditional clothing and textiles. Rather than suffer the abuse that came with their expression of indigenous identity, people would don modern clothing when they went into the city. As men traveled to the city more often for business, women became the bastions of tradition. They were more likely to continue using traditional textiles and many continued to weave. Making traditional textiles, however, came to be seen as an antiquated, useless pursuit that did not augment the family income. Weavers stopped using, and eventually forgot, the more complicated designs and techniques. Textiles were reduced to a shallow shadow of their former glory.

Today various organizations, government entities and the weavers themselves are attempting to revive our understanding and appreciation of Andean textiles. Tourism has played an important role in this. As foreign visitors display their interest in indigenous culture and art, local people are beginning to reassess how they view and treat their own culture and traditions. The process of natural dyeing is being rediscovered, and work with community elders means that weavers are recovering the knowledge of ancient techniques and designs that were almost lost. While there is still a long way to go in regaining a better understanding of Andean textiles, one of the most important steps is already in motion. Only by recovering pride in themselves and their traditions, and by forging inter-cultural respect, will weavers and their supporters be better positioned to recover our knowledge of traditional textiles.

The weavers explain…

We no longer feel we have to accept these insults [about indigenous people]. If we hear some bad comment about us, we immediately tell the speakers that we are people and equal to them and that there is no difference between us…We can say that because of us, there are enough tourists in Cusco.

Twelve to fifteen years ago, when we began to work with the Center to restore our traditional clothing and agreed to wear it on our trips to the city, people looked at us as if we were foreigners. On the buses, people were put off by our skirts and tried to push us aside. But now, little by little, we are being accepted.

We like our clothing and put it on with pride. It is something personal that we made ourselves. If we hear negative comments, we defend ourselves. In the past, our parents did not protest and did not demand respect. Now things are changing, although slowly. Now, sometimes people in the government and educators ask us to go to meetings with our traditional clothing and we feel very proud. Few still feel ashamed…

Benita Ccana and Aquilina Castro, Pitumarca weavers
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[i]  Andrea M. Heckman, Woven Sotires: Andean Textiles and Rituals, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003,) 23-5.

[ii] Ibid., 23.

[iii] Ibid., 106.