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History and Culture / Textile Fragments

Ancient Andean Textile Fragments

Textile tradition in Peru is at least 3,000 years old and long before the Incas, textiles were culturally and economically more valuable than gold or silver.

Reciprocity and alliances were based on textile tokens.

The finest textiles were made with alpaca yarn combined with feathers, chaquiras (bone and spondillus beads), gold and silver plates, and fine hairs from bats and vizcachas (a large Andean rodent), and sometimes even human hair. This fine textiles were called Cumbi or Cumbe and were reserved to the use of kings and high priests.

Andean artisans have inherited this millenary technology to produce alpaca yarns whose extreme fineness can be compared with that of human hair. Such textiles were-and a few still are-traditionally made to produce llicllas or blankets that have a twofold purpose: they are light yet warm and they are extraordinarily strong to carry loads on llama backs.

Traditional alpaca textiles last for ever because the very fine alpaca hair yarn is woven in the loom with only one thread and is extremely twisted to withstand great tensions.

The Andean value of textiles is still in force, when a peasant gives an old or fine alpaca blanket to somebody, his is a token of love and deep gratitude, the fruit of long, hard-worked hours to manufacture a priceless piece of art. But because of these blankets' fineness, great amounts of alpaca fibre are required, and the long time invested in making the yarn is seldom valued by textile buyers.

Therefore, peasants who have inherited their strong, beautiful and everlasting textiles from their ancestors do not find buyers willing to pay their true value. Quite on the contrary, in view of their desperate need for money, they are now selling these lovely heirlooms to unscrupulous middlemen who cut them into small pieces to decorate handbags, wallets, and waistcoats, just as it happened with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

If the skilful Andean artisans were offered fair prices for such a fine and long-lasting product, we are convinced that a most important step would have been taken to recover millenary technologies and improve producer living conditions. If, on the other hand, the international and solidary markets continue to demand fragmented textiles in modern products-subject to ephemeral fashions-the few existing remnants of that art will have been lost for ever and so will the extraordinary technology that only elders now know.