Winged Creatures and Smiling Suns


Tradition and innovation in Quechua weaving

The iconographic traditions of today’s Quechua weavers are rich with surprising innovation. These women may be carrying on ancient hand-woven patterns and loom techniques from pre-Inca times, but this is a living art form. And the most imaginative weavers are always evolving within their strictly held traditions. Many things have changed but many things have remained the same – the earth, its animals, and the elements as central to Andean weaving both in providing raw materials and inspiration for symbols.

Threads of Peru is an NGO that works with Quechua weavers in the Sacred Valley of Peru. We work closely with weavers in three isolated communities to invigorate ancient weaving techniques and connect their textiles to a global marketplace in hopes of preserving an art form that many supporters believe is threatened.  Different valleys are known for different iconography and there is a wealth of styles, materials, and processes being used today in Peru.  In the Sacred Valley, smiling suns, winged creatures, livestock among flowers, and forest rodents are images that are repeated on mantas in a myriad of creative ways. Women wear heavily patterned mantas (called lliclla in Quechua) folded around their shoulders and pinned in front under the chin with a large silver safety pin.

In Quechua culture, a largely nonliterate society, weaving has always been an important means for communicating stories and mythology.  Geometrical suns, often with faces, emphasize the villager’s affection for this central life-giving source. As the sun sinks behind the mountain peaks at 6 pm every night, the temperature drops drastically, the water freezes in buckets and streams, and communities without electricity gather around kitchen fires and prepare to retire for the night. According to Inca mythology, the creator of the world, Viracocha, created a dark world without sun, moon, or stars. Eventually, after darkness and floods, Viracocha decided to create luminaries, and the sun, moon and stars were brought forth from Lake Titicaca. Inti was the Incan sun god, central to life and culture, and Inca emperors were worshipped as the descendents of the sun.

Animals were always important to the Incas (appearing in their myths, legends and architecture) and that is still the central theme of weaving in the Sacred Valley.  The paw of the puma is one of the most popular abstract designs. Snakes, skunks, rabbits, frogs, guinea pigs, trout, alpacas and llamas often populate weavings. The symbols are often open- to-interpretation – what one woman says is a lake, another sees as a cloud in the shape of a fish.  When talking about the images, it is evident that the weavers find lot of joy in making the animal images.

Wings are also a central theme on mantas, which fold around the wearer not unlike a set of protective wings itself. Large wings of condors, small wings of bats, sculptural geometric wings devoid of a body, wings sprouting from the backs of kissing swans, winged ghosts, and large abstract butterfly wings are all playfully and creatively designed.  The Andean condor, the bird with the largest wingspan on Earth, has been important in Quechua culture as an intermediary between humans and the Gods. It is believed to be an animal that can move between the upper spiritual realm and the earthly realm, aiding in communicating messages between the two worlds.

So Quechua weavers of today exist between various worlds – that of the ancient Inca and a rapidly modernizing Latin American country. When attending local village markets with my weaving teacher, Placida, the women are all wrapped in their heavily patterned, hand-woven mantas over the top of fluorescent synthetic, factory made sweaters and tops.   Placida is wearing a manta she wove herself with what appears to be a winged dragon woven on one shoulder.  Another young woman is wearing a manta in which rhinestones serve for the eyes of dozens of animals roaming around her torso.  What a 16 year old village girl weaves for herself to catch the attention of boys is different than what her mother may be weaving to sell in the tourist markets of Cusco. As in any living art, there is room for multiple weaving traditions as seen from one rural valley to the next, from the tourist markets to high end exports and from textile museums to Lima fashion.

Terra Fuller is a project leader at Threads of Peru, She believes that traditional handicrafts and art forms can create sustainable economic development and help maintain and invigorate extraordinary cultural traditions that are disappearing around the world. Terra recently returned from over two years working as Artisan Consultant to indigenous Amazight carpet weavers in rural Morocco. She is also a practicing artist who actively exhibits her work in galleries around the world.

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