Andean weaving is rich with a seemingly innumerable number of complex patterns and symbols. Anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and geometric patterns tell a complex story of Quechua communities interacting with the natural environment. Every detail of a textile conveys meaning, from the woven symbol itself to the colours and spin of the yarn used to create it, and its placement in the textile and alongside other patterns.
Some symbols, known as pallay in Quechua, have been used since time immemorial while others are modern innovations. There are regional variations and preferences for patterns in certain communities, just as there are for colour and specific clothing items. All weavers learn to weave one pallay at a time, starting with the simplest ones and working up to more complex ones as they gain skill and expertise. Learning is always done by watching and copying elders. Sometimes weavers do not know the meaning or source of a specific pallay, but remember it as something they learned from their grandparents.
Popular patterns inspired by nature include inti (sun), mayu (river), ch’aska (star), t’ika (flower), and qocha (lake). Other popular designs are those that reflect the daily life of the women in the mountains, and represent llamas, dogs, ducks, and condors; still others depict significant historical events and characters in Andean folklore. Many symbols carry more complex meaning, not easily translated; often, the meanings will vary community by community, and even person to person!
Traditional textile patterns honour Pachamama, Mother Earth, and express thankfulness for growth, regeneration and the idea of being related to the natural world.
If one visits an indigenous community, or has the chance to talk at length with weavers selling their work in Cusco, one soon discovers that the meanings conveyed in the patterns and symbols of Andean weaving depend on the personality and experience of the weaver. This may seem obvious, as this must surely be the case with any art form. But here, there is such a strong undercurrent of shared iconography, that it can be very interesting to discuss meaning with a weaver. Two symbols, made exactly alike, can have totally different meanings to different makers. If the weaver has a sense of humour, you may find some funny stories connected to her choice of pattern. If she is reverent of history, there may be classic tales of historic figures and noble deeds contained in the pattern.
One conversation we had with a weaver centred around her choosing to depict a boat in her work. Given the remote mountain location of her home, we wondered where it came from. She explained that she had been inspired by her children, who were playing with a toy boat in the little stream in front of the house. So often, the pictures can only be deciphered in conversation with the maker.
Following, we present examples of some of the different symbols and patterns that you are likely to find in traditional Andean weaving, and give the most common explanations for what they represent.
You'll have to visit the weavers to hear their individual stories!
Animals are very common symbols in traditional Andean weaving. Many of the weavers we have spoken to take great joy in making them which is reflected in the great care they take in the detail of construction. Dogs and llamas permeate the daily existence of mountain communities, yet they are not the only animals to appear in the textiles. Some of the creatures featured here are very rarely encountered, and may never have even been seen by the weaver! Yet they abound in the weaver’s imagination and find their way into the weaving.
People often appear in the patterns of traditional Andean textiles. These are a few examples of common human forms. The large image to the right is a symbol of the day the Spanish quartered the historical figure Túpac Amaru II (José Gabriel Condorcanqui). In approximately 1780, he led the Indigenous Uprising against the Spanish in Peru. Unfortunately, he was defeated, but today he remains an icon for the Indigenous Rights Movement in Peru. His execution was a barbaric one. After seeing the murder of his wife and family, Amaru II lost his tongue, and his arms and legs were tied to four horses. Finally the Spanish had his head on display in the Plaza de Armas in Cusco, where his great-grandfather (Inca Tupac Amaru) had also been beheaded.
Flowers & Abstractions
Anyone who has visited the mountains of Peru knows that one of the most striking things about its stunning landscape is the abundance of flowers which punctuate the brown landscape of the dry season, and the green coat of the wet season. Flowers shock you with their colour in all kinds of places. It is no wonder, then, that flowers appear all over Andean textiles.
Likewise, the otherworldly landscape of the high Andes of Peru is impossible to ignore. The great peaks of the mountains rise around you, rivers cut deep veins in their slopes as they reach for the jungles far below. The intense light of the daytime sun is followed by more stars in a night than the rest of the world sees in a year. All of this finds expression in the woven canvasses of these talented artisans.