Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Femenías, Blenda. “Ethnic Artists and the Appropriation of Fashion: Embroidery and Identity in the Colca Valley, Peru.” Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 22–24, 1994 (Los Angeles, CA: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1995), pp. 331–341.


Copyright © 1994 Blenda Femenías


"When I'm in Arequipa and I see a lady in embroidered clothes, I always greet her; she's from my land, she's my compatriot. . . . [When I teach embroidery] no matter how much one teaches, the motifs don't come out the same. If there are twenty embroiderers, twenty different motifs come out although they have the same name. It's like, even if you're my brother, we're not the same."

These comments by embroidery artist Leonardo Mejfa neatly express the character of Colca Valley ethnic clothes: simultaneously shared and individual. Similar appearance is important in recognizing a compatriot, but an artist's style of executing the complex embroidered designs distinguishes his/her work.

Contemporary textile production in the Colca Valley, a highland region of southern Peru, occurs mostly in small workshops, where I center my study. There, men and women embroider and tailor ornate clothes on treadle sewing machines. About 150 artisans provide garments for about 8,000 female consumers (total valley population is about 20,000). This article draws on surveys that I conducted with 110 artisans and vendors, during two years of fieldwork.

Textiles are important emblems of ethnic identity, as is commonly observed. However, I want to move beyond seeing "emblems" as superficial symbols, and to analyze ethnicity as a concept, as a relation of power among social groups with profoundly different resources. The rural, Quechua-speaking Colca Valley peoples are often considered "Indians" by outsiders, but they do not identify themselves as such. Indio in Peru is a powerful epithet that accentuates class difference and disguises it in racial terms. The social and economic roles that Colca Valley men and women play in Peruvian society have changed considerably in this century, and increasingly so in this generation. Ethnic artists have been crucial in mediating change, by producing ethnic clothes.

Through observing everyday and festival garments, discussing aesthetics with women who wear those garments, and analyzing the artisan surveys, I realized how important color and materials had become. In these domains, ethnic artists appropriate national and international tastes according to local cultural preferences, which in tum help to develop and maintain discrete ethnic identities.