Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii


Copyright 2008 by the author.


A small but fascinating Chancay gauze fragment in the collection of the Michael C. Carlos Museum stands out as an exemplary object that embodies the symbolic associations and aesthetic principles of the Peruvian coastline during the Late Intermediate Period (Fig. 1). Its weave structure, production process, iconography, and polychromy unite in reinforcing the protective and regenerative purposes of the original headdress. Consisting of variably spun threads knotted together, its unique discontinuous warp relates to its function in funerary and ceremonial contexts. Significantly, its weaver pushed beyond technical limitations to bring together the laborious techniques of gauze weaving and discontinuous warping in a single textile. The result of this ingenious yet unpublished technical combination was a “jumping” serpentine figure on an indigo background. The allusion to serpent movement, enabled by the use of a discontinuous warp made whole through the tying of tiny knots, recalls both the corporeal process of the cloth’s creation as well as the physical exertion of snakes. Moreover, the cloth’s overall polychrome patterning evokes the vivid dorsal patterning of snakes that have just shed their skin and emerged headfirst into the environment as regenerated beings.

Although no other published gauze headdresses have been recognized as having discontinuous warps, and very few are polychromatic, the Carlos Museum gauze nevertheless shares many features with other Chancay gauzes. Commonalities include the organic abstract patterning created by complex gauze weaves, serpentine iconography, elasticity due to slightly over-spun threads, and the wearing of gauzes on the head in transformative ritual contexts. Moreover, the forceful repetitive motions exerted by the weaver during production may also be considered as contributing to the reception of the textile, as process and product are interconnected in Andean worldview. These combined attributes support the interpretation that many other gauze headcloths were meant to evoke the powerful properties of serpents.

Gauze weaving requires a special technique, in which the weaver forces some warp threads to cross over or under other warp threads. These gauze crosses are held in place by the insertion of weft threads. This method of warp-crossing, contrasts with standard back-strap weaving, where the warp threads do not interact with each other but remain in a fixed position. Different types of gauze weave are classified by the various interactions of the warp threads. The simplest structure is that of plain gauze weave, in which the same warp threads pass over or under each other. More complex gauze weaves are created when variation is introduced into the interworking of warps and interlacing of wefts. In Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques, Raoul d’Harcourt illustrates how several complex openwork gauzes may be created through the omission of the crossing of certain warp threads. These types of gauzes are effective in conveying a sense of movement through their undulating serpentine patterns. The organic shapes created in gauze openwork, often simply labeled “ovular” or “gourd-shaped,” appear to mimic the scale patterning on snakes, a subject to which I will later return.