Symbols & Patterns
The patterns one can find in traditional Andean weaving are almost limitless. There is a strong presence of old world symbols, which have been around for centuries. There are regional variations and preferences for patterns in certain communities, just as there are for colour and specific clothing items. As with dye, the patterns often come from nature, although in the case of pattern, this tie with nature is one of inspiration, rather than a direct sampling of the natural material.
Andean people live in harmony with nature and many of the imagery in their designs reflect nature. Popular “edging” patterns include inti (sun), mayu (river) and straight and curving paths through the mountains. Series of flowers, stars and eyes are also common. Some designs a foreigner or outsider can clearly discern, but in other cases, they merely appear to be attractive geometric arrangements. More often than not the weaver will say a Quechua name that cannot be translated to Spanish easily, and then explain that it is an ancient design from their grandparents times.
Traditional textile patterns honor Pachamama, Mother Earth, and express thankfulness for growth, regeneration and the idea of being related to the natural world.
Other popular designs are those that reflect the daily life of the women in the mountains – llamas, dogs, ducks, and condors – plus significant historical events and characters in Andean folklore.
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 very much depend on the personality and experience of the weaver. This may seem obvious, as it 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 some classic tales of historic figures and noble deeds contained in the thread. One conversation we had with a weaver centered 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. And that is an experience which is waiting for you in the mountains of Peru. For this discussion, we will simply 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 are.
You’ll have to visit the weavers for their individual stories.
Animals are very common symbols in traditional Andean weaving, and many of the weavers we have spoken to about them seem to take almost a girlish joy in making them. This is a joy that is reflected in the great care they have taken in the detail of their 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 been seen by the weaver – but they are common in the imagination! Therefore, they find their way to capture in the woven threads of 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 about 1780 He lead 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, his arms and legs were tied to four horses, and finally the Spanish had his head on the plaza de armas in Cuzco – where his great-grandfather (Inca Tupac Amaru) had been beheaded also.
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 something that is impossible to ignore. The great teeth of the mountains rise all 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 word sees in a year. (Well, that’s how it seems…) Similar impressions can be found in the woven threads.