How Did the Inca Master Textile Art?

The Inca were masters of fine textiles—how did they surpass Old World technology working by hand with basic tools?

Jul 4, 2024By Kristen Jancuk, Editor; Latin & South American History

inca mastered textile art

 

Though the colonizers’ appreciation for the textiles of the Inca Empire left much to be desired, textiles were valued on par with precious metals among the Indigenous peoples of the Inca Empire. The Inca and their predecessors developed and mastered the arts of spinning and weaving over centuries, resulting in luxurious textiles that were not only some of the finest and most intricate in existence at that time but stand out even by today’s standards—all handmade with “primitive” technology.

 

Fabric 101: Basic Textile Production

Woman weaving on a backstrap loom, with a European-style treadle loom behind her. Awana Kancha, Cusco, Peru, 2012. Photo author’s own.

 

The most basic textile production involves two separate processes: first, a thread is made, and then the thread is interlocked—either worked back on itself (e.g., knitting, crochet) or with separate threads (weaving)—to make fabric.

 

To make thread or yarn, animal fibers or fibers from specific plants, including cotton and flax, are twisted together—spun—into long strands, after which multiple strands are usually twisted together again or plied to create the finished product. Originally, this was done by hand with a spindle, then a spinning wheel, and now machines.

 

Weaving, arguably the oldest and most common form of textile production, involves interlacing two separate sets of threads. One set, the warp, runs lengthwise, and the second set, the weft, is woven over and under the warp threads at a right angle. Weaving was originally accomplished by hand using looms of various styles, depending on the culture, before being mechanized during the Industrial Revolution.

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Despite only two relatively straightforward processes being involved, a surprising number of variables ultimately dictate the quality of a woven textile. So, what makes Inca textiles stand out from not only others of their time, but even today?

 

Spinning a Yarn: What Made Inca Textiles Unique

Vicuña produce the softest animal fiber in the world and cannot be domesticated. Source: Cardiff University

 

One reason for the exceptional quality of Inca textiles was the fibers available to spinners and weavers. While coarser fibers, including cotton and llama, were used for everyday wear, alpaca and the rarer vicuña fibers were used for elites and for ritualistic textiles. Without getting too much into the weeds, a common method of determining a fiber’s fineness is its micron count; the fewer microns, the finer the fiber. While sheep’s wool, being used elsewhere in the world at the time, usually has a micron count somewhere between 20 and 30, the micron count for the fiber of these creatures native to the Andes generally falls between 12 and 18.

 

Vicuña remains one of the rarest fibers on the planet today—skeins of just 200 yards of vicuña yarn retail for hundreds of dollars compared with just a few dollars for a similarly sized ball of sheep’s wool. Even the coarser fibers available to Inca weavers were often softer than much of what was available elsewhere at the time. Carefully selected llama fiber can be as soft as merino wool, and the region’s native cotton, Pima, has a long staple length that makes it far softer than other cotton fibers.

 

A collection of ancient Peruvian textile tools and artifacts, including spindles and spun thread. Source: Museo Larco, Lima, Peru

 

Fine fiber is a good base for luxury textiles, but spinning fine fiber into equally fine, uniform thread takes time, great care, and perhaps a lifetime of practice. A great deal of “twist” must be drawn into a fine fiber to hold it together in a single, unbroken thread, but not so much that it becomes overspun, which will cause the thread to double back on itself.

 

While the Old World was using spinning wheels at this time, all of this work was done by hand with a spindle in the Inca Empire—slower, certainly, but a technique that also allowed for more direct control over the twist in the fiber, essential for creating very fine thread. While there are no records to attest to how the Inca mastered this art, perhaps some conclusions can be drawn from the practices that persist to the present day: children in the Andean highlands’ Indigenous communities are taught to use spindles from a young age, with more practiced spinners often carrying their spindles with them to spin thread in idle moments.

 

Fine fiber spun into fine thread means softer, more luxurious garments but also allows for more complex patterning. The fineness of these fibers not only allows but requires them to be woven tightly to create structure, and while packing more threads into each inch of fabric makes for a time-consuming project, it also allows for more intricate designs to take shape. In the absence of a written language, various shapes, patterns, and figures were used to record histories and recount religious mythologies, at first painted but then woven into the fabric itself.

 

Stitching Together an Empire: Pre-Inca Textile Development

Tunic with Confronting Catfish, 800–850 CE, Peru, Nasca-Wari. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The term “Inca Empire” suggests a singular culture that expanded over a vast territory, but the reality is that Tawantinsuyu, what the Inca called their land, included numerous cultures that were either conquered or incorporated over a century. It is important to recognize that many of the cultures, including groups like the Nasca, Wari, Chancay, Paracas, and Chimú that either preceded or were ultimately absorbed into the Inca Empire, were responsible for the development and ultimate renown of what are generally lumped together as “Inca” textiles.

 

The practice of spinning fiber into cord to create nets, baskets, and simple cloth has been dated to as far back as 12,000 BCE in the region, while the earliest evidence of a more artistic weaving tradition in what would ultimately be called the Inca Empire, decorated cotton fabric found on present-day Peru’s northern coast, has been dated to 2500 BCE.

 

Large-scale textile production and artistry in the area that would ultimately become the Inca Empire likely began with the Chavín culture, which thrived from 900-200 BCE and is often recognized as the first great culture of the region. Chavín textile artwork involved painting on woven cotton cloth rather than weaving the images directly. Researchers have noted extensive textile production during this period, not solely for practical use but for ritual purposes as well. Painted textiles were likely used to spread the imagery and religious beliefs of this culture from its origin in the north to points further south.

 

Segment of the “Paracas Textile,” a large mantle with an intricate border created with a single needle technique called cross-knit looping today. Nasca culture, 100-300 CE. Cotton, camelid fiber. Source: Brooklyn Museum

 

Moving toward the modern era, the Nasca and Paracas cultures made great strides in textile production. Many examples from this period, roughly 500 BCE to 700 CE, have survived, as the region they inhabited, the arid southern coast of present-day Peru, had the ideal climate for preservation. These relics showcase a mastery of early weaving as well as other textile techniques:

 

“The textile techniques practiced throughout this period were widely diverse including kelim, interlocking, eccentric tapestry; pattern weaves; weft scaffolding; twining; plaiting; lace; brocade; wrapped weaving, and double cloth. Several different methods of embroidery were developed…”

 

Perhaps equally important, these artifacts also provide evidence for the use of textiles as a form of writing, with these cultures recording their vision of the universe and systems of beliefs by weaving, knitting, and embroidering them into the fabric itself, which was then often used to shroud and bury the dead.

 

Wari four-cornered hat, 7th-9th century CE, Peru. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

As the Wari and Tiwanaku cultures developed, 700-1100 CE, in the present-day Peruvian highlands and Bolivia, motifs in textiles became more standardized, which scholars suggest indicates state control over some textile production, likely for the elites. Garments specific to these cultures, including the distinctive four-cornered hat, have been identified, and patterning included natural elements, like the animals representing various gods in previous cultures, as well as abstract geometric designs. During this period, a specific weaving technique called “tapestry,” in which the weft threads are worked tightly back and forth in a small area rather than over the entire width of the fabric, completely covering the warp threads, was mastered.

 

Shirt featuring cat and human-like, front-facing figures in bold colors. Chimú, 1450–1550 CE, Peru. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

The Chimú and Chancay cultures were once contemporary to and then ultimately conquered by the Inca, active from 1100 to 1400 CE on the present-day Peruvian coast. Both cultures continued to develop more sophisticated weaving techniques, including brocade, but their styles often diverged, with the Chancay using softer colors while the Chimú favored brighter designs incorporating animal motifs. A unique textile form surviving from the Chancay culture is the fabric doll, sometimes called burial dolls as they’ve been discovered in burial sites, while some surviving Chimú textiles include loincloths and sleeved shirts, many featuring front-facing human figures.

 

Gold Standard: Textiles in the Inca Empire

Spanish chroniclers described this tunic as worn by men of Atahualpa’s army, 1500s CE. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

By the early 15th century, Pachacuti began to expand the humble Inca beyond Cusco, kicking off nearly 100 years of conquest. By 1525, the Inca were ruling over much of present-day Peru, as well as parts of Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina, conquering and incorporating the lands’ existing occupants—and their textile traditions—along the way.

 

Weaving during the Inca empire included many of the various techniques developed and mastered in the centuries prior but employed mostly plain, tapestry, and scroll weave techniques, as well as embroidery, featherwork, tassels, and fringe. Patterning, while still intricate, was more abstract than in previous eras, with geometric and stylized designs being favored over figures. Two styles of loom were used: the vertical loom and the style the region is most famous for, the backstrap loom, which was both simple to construct and easy to transport.

 

Social order throughout the large empire was maintained in a number of ways, and here textiles played a central role. Certain fabrics and designs were reserved for particular classes and uses. Awaska, a standard grade cloth, was used among the lower classes while qompi, the finest cloth, was reserved for the elites and state use—to be given as gifts, used in rituals, and, of course, cloth the Sapa Inca who, legend has it, wore each garment only once, after which it was burned. Women in the acllawasi wove qompi cloth solely for the nobility and clergy, while male weavers produced such cloth for the empire’s use. Qompi used the finest fibers, baby alpaca and vicuña, and boasted the most intricate designs, with a thread count of 600 or more per inch.

 

Inca tunic (unku) covered in t’ocapu, patterning reserved for the nobility.1450-1540 CE. Source: Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Washington DC

 

While there was little variation in the types of garments worn, their patterning could be distinctive. Men wore an uncu, or tunic, with a standardized construction and dimensions, while women wore simple dresses with a shoulder mantle, or lliklla, but depending on the region, culture or even family where garments were made, their decoration would vary. An eight-pointed star was a common design element in southern Peru, for example, and Spanish chroniclers noted soldiers wearing a specific uniform: a tunic with a red collar and checkerboard pattern across the body. T’ocapu, a bold pattern of square geometric designs, was reserved for the nobility.

 

At the height of the Inca Empire, just before the conquistadors’ arrival, textiles were functioning as a pseudo-currency in the Andes and beyond, and as such, were carefully regulated. In the socialized Inca economy, citizens were required to provide labor to the empire, a sort of tax called a mit’a, which would include spinning thread and weaving cloth to add to the empire’s stores. The central government, in turn, provided housing, food and clothing, distributing and managing the trade of textile goods. Outstanding service and loyalty were rewarded not with money—the Inca had none—but with luxury goods, including fine textiles. Offerings to the gods included textiles, which were burned. When the conquistadors arrived in Tawantinsuyu, they were welcomed not with precious metals but with intricately woven textiles of the highest quality.

 

If textiles were so prized and ubiquitous enough to act as a form of currency, why do relatively few examples from this time period remain? In addition to being very biodegradable, the Inca valued their textiles so much they would sooner burn them than let them fall into enemy hands—including the Spanish.

 

Preserving History: Modern Weaving in the Andes

Women in traditional dress spinning and weaving on a backstrap loom at Ollantaytambo, Peru in 2023. Photo author’s own.

 

While the vast majority of textiles around the world are made by machines today, traditional weaving lives on in the Andes. A number of organizations are active in the region to help revitalize and preserve traditional weaving techniques, which, though not nearly as widespread as they once were, have never disappeared. They endeavor to ensure that knowledge of hand spinning, natural dyeing, and hand weaving continues to be passed down from generation to generation.

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By Kristen JancukEditor; Latin & South American HistoryKristen received her MA in Latin American and Hemispheric Studies from George Washington University, and a BA in Spanish and International Relations from Bucknell University. After receiving her MA, Kristen began working on international drug policy for the Organization of American States. She is certified for Spanish-to-English translation by the American Translators Association, specializing in translating national and international policy as well as academic content focused on the Latin American region. One of her greatest and most impractical ambitions is to learn Quechua.