Date of this Version
From Creating Textiles: Makers, Methods, Markets. Proceedings of the Sixth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Inc. New York, NY, September 23–26, 1998 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1999).
During the early years of this century, treasure hunters working the arid Peruvian south coast discovered well-preserved textiles that were unlike anything previously known from the Central Andes. Simple in structure (plain weave with embroidery) but stunning in appearance, these textiles had been hidden from human eyes for almost two millennia, buried in desert graves on the Paracas Peninsula. One of these textiles, a mantle in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is the subject of this essay. It and other Paracas textiles are so remote from us in time and in culture that it is sometimes easy to overlook the fact that they were woven and sewn by real human beings. In this paper I will show how scrutiny of the many tiny details of embroidered images can sometimes reveal the presence of the human beings who stitched them nearly 2000 years ago. While the mantle in the AMNH is the focus of this paper, summaries of previously-published studies will show how each Paracas fabric is potentially unique in terms of the information it provides about working procedures. All of the textiles discussed here likely originated from funerary bundles buried on the peninsula during Early Intermediate Period Epoch 1, approximately 0-100 AD.
There are various ways of reconstructing the steps followed in the fabrication of Paracas embroidered textiles, and some fabrics have more clues than others. When the embroidery on a garment is unfinished, for instance, the creative process is «frozen» midstream, leaving traces of how work was proceeding. Likewise, when the people working together on a piece were of different levels of competence it is sometimes possible to distinguish between a skilled worker and one who was less adept. Both of these types of evidence are present on a textile that was among the wrappings of bundle 382 from a cemetery on the Paracas Peninsula (Paul and Niles 1985). Mantle 382-37 was originally covered with the outlines of 429 anthropomorphic figures. Some images are only partially outlined, others are completely outlined but not filled in, and still others are only partially outlined but already have some details filled in with embroidery. An examination of every figure on the mantle revealed that many people were involved in the textile's embroidery, and that some workers were considerably more experienced than others.