Incan Textiles: History & Patterns

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

To the people of the Inca Empire, few things were as important as their textiles. In this lesson, we'll explore the techniques and tradition of Inca weaving, and see how this art form defined Inca civilization.

The Inca Empire

Have you every thought about gifts? You probably have, most of us do around the holidays, but do you ever stop to consider what gift giving represents? The practice of giving gifts is important, and so gifts represent value. The more important the situation is, the more valuable the gifts. So, in the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors were first welcomed into the Peruvian Inca Empire by a powerful emperor who wanted to show off his wealth and power to these newcomers, can you guess what he gave them? Not gold - not at first - but textiles. That would be like walking into someone's home for the first time, and they give you a new shirt. To the people of the Inca Empire, the largest military state of indigenous South America, few things were as valuable as their woven fabrics. As far as the Inca were concerned, this was their gift to the world.

Inca textiles were much more than simple pieces of cloth

Inca Textiles

The Inca Empire thrived from about 1250 to 1532 CE, and considering that they lived amongst the peaks of the Andes (up to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level), it's not surprising that they put a lot of effort into making thick blankets, clothes, and rugs. So, how did they make them? Let's start with the materials. Inca fabrics were made from either lowlands plants, like cotton traded from coastal and Amazonian peoples, or from highland mammals, like llamas and alpacas. These materials connect Inca weavers to an ancient tradition; weaving seems to have first been developed in the Andes up to 5,000 years ago.

The fibers from cotton or animal furs were spun into threads of yarn, which were then dyed with bright colors and used to make complete fabrics. Depending on the desired final product, there were a few ways to do this. Many textile-makers utilized a backstrap loom, a device common across Central and South America. The weaver strapped the loom around their waist and back, anchored it to a solid wall, tree, or wire and started weaving. Most Inca textiles were woven using a very labor-intensive process called twining, in which threads of yarn are braided by hand. It was a lot of work, but gave Inca weavers great control over their product, letting them weave in intricate patterns of animals and figures from Inca life and mythology. After the weaving was completed, some additional embroidery may be added for decoration.

The Inca did tend to prefer very colorful textiles, with some distinct design motifs. One of the most recognizable aspects of Inca textiles are the tocapus, a deign motif of repetitive, checkered geometric patterns. Within each of these checkered squares the weaver may include smaller geometric or figural designs as well.

The tacapus of Inca textiles are a very common design motif

Uses and Significance

From the time-consuming process required to make Inca textiles, we can begin to get an idea of their value to the Inca people. Textiles were prized possessions, which had concrete value; in fact, taxes to the Sapa Inca (the emperor) could be paid in textiles. Fabrics were an actual form of currency in the Inca Empire. No holiday in the Inca Empire was complete without exchanging gifts of textiles, no religious ceremony was complete without offering textiles to the gods, and no rite of passage could be commemorated without some textile specially designed for that occasion.

Their importance does not stop there, however. Textiles were not only the Inca currency, but in a way their language. The Inca spoke Quechua, a language still common in the Andes today. Despite achieving mastery of architecture, astronomy, military, and social organization, the Inca never had a written form of Quechua. They were a non-literate society.

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