The Cloth of Empire


Even to the casual observer, the weavings of the Andean region are clearly more than just cloth. The characteristic geometric motifs and stylised imagery of animals have a deeper significance that goes beyond pretty patterns. 1_YUAG_AndeanTextiles_SleevedTunicwithFlyingCondors The weaving technology still used in some traditional communities has its origins in ancient history. The Andeans were among the earliest weaving cultures, producing textiles as early as 10,000 BCE. Meanwhile, most of the world’s peoples were still hunter-gatherers and mammoths had yet to go completely extinct – yet around the globe at this time, there began a steady outpouring of cultural innovation. Over the millennia, sweeping developments in agriculture and technology led to the rise of mighty civilisations in the Andes, such as the Incan empire. At its largest, this empire covered almost 800,000 square miles and was home to an estimated 20 million people – and textiles had a part to play in this. When the conquerors took over new land, they would make gifts of cloth to the leaders of defeated groups to welcome them into the empire. The designs of these gifts were highly significant, as they could later be used as woven records of historical political events. In this sense, these cloths fulfilled a similar function to the Bayeaux Tapestry or the written chronicles of medieval monks. In the Andes, even among ordinary folk, cloth speaks. The clothes that the ancient people wore communicated a wealth of information about their status, occupation and hometown, and patterns that feature in indigenous Andean textiles are still significant today to those who know how to read into them. More than just cloth: the story of Andean weaving is as rich and surprising as the textiles themselves, and is the subject of an exciting exhibition currently showing at Yale University. Weaving and the Social World: 3,000 Years of Ancient Andean Textiles Yale University Art Gallery Until 18 September 2016.

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