Andean weaving is rich with innumerable Quechua symbols and patterns. Anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and geometric patterns tell complex stories of the interactions between the artisans and their natural environment. Every detail of a textile conveys meaning, from the woven symbols themselves, to the colors and spin of the yarn, to the placement of Quechua symbols in relation to other icons woven into the textile.
Some symbols, known as pallay in Quechua, have been used for time immemorial, while others are modern innovations. There are regional variations and preferences for patterns in certain communities, just as there are for color and specific clothing items. All weavers learn to weave one pallay at a time, starting with the simplest ones and working up to the more complex 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 Quechua symbols inspired by nature include inti (sun), mayu (river), ch’aska (star), t’ika (flower), and qocha (lake). Other popular designs, such as llamas, dogs, ducks, and condors represent animals that appear in the daily lives of artisans; still others depict significant historical events and characters in Andean folklore. Many symbols carry more complex meanings that are not easily translated; often, the meanings will vary from community to community, and even from person to person!
Traditional textile patterns honor the Pachamama, (Mother Earth), and express thankfulness for growth, regeneration, and interconnectedness with the natural world.
If one visits an indigenous community, or has the chance to converse 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 upon 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 humor, you may hear 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 within the pattern.
One conversation we had with a weaver centered around her choice 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 their house. So often, the pictures can only be understood by conversing with the maker.
In the following paragraphs, we present examples of some of the different Quechua 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 weaving animals forms in intricate detail into their textiles. Dogs and llamas permeate the daily existence of mountain communities, yet they are not the only animals to appear in textiles. Some of the creatures depicted are very rarely encountered, and may never have been seen by the weaver, yet they exist in the weaver’s imagination and frequently find their way into the weavings.
People often appear in the patterns of traditional Andean textiles. One example is the pallay that commemorates the murder of the historical Inca figure, Túpac Amaru II, (born José Gabriel Condorcanqui). In approximately 1780, Túpac Amaru II led an indigenous uprising against the Spanish Conquistadors. His execution was a particularly barbaric one: after being forced to witness the execution of his family, his body was quartered using four horses, and his head put on display in Cusco's Plaza de Armas. To this day, Túpac Amaru remains an icon for the Indigenous Rights Movement in Peru.
Since Quechua was primarily an oral language, historical events could not be written- but they could be memorialized in weavings. Hence the importance of pallays such as the one below: using the ancient art of weaving, Quechua people were able to commemorate events that might otherwise be forgotten with time.
Flowers & Abstractions
Anyone who has visited the mountains of Peru knows that one of the most striking features of the stunning Andean landscape is its abundance of flowers. Flowers surprise with flashes of color in unexpected places. It is no wonder, then, that flowers are a common design element of Andean textiles.
Likewise, the otherworldly landscapes of the high Andes of Peru make a deep impression on visual perception. The great peaks of the mountains rise around you; rivers cut deep veins into the slopes as they cascade toward the jungles below. The intense light of the daytime sun is followed by more stars in one night than city dwellers may see in a year! All of this finds expression in the woven canvasses of these talented textile artisans.