Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario


Copyright 2006 by the author.


The only documented unbroken Inca weaving tradition thrives today in the Huamachuco region of northern Peru (La Libertad Department), where females in several Andean communities weave belts chronicled in A.D. 1590 by a Mercedarian Friar Martín de Murúa. Murúa was entrusted with collecting tribute from and Christianizing the indigenous population of Yanaca in the Province of Aymarays (in modern Apurimac Department in central Peru). His contemporary Guaman Poma accused Murúa of exploitation of the Indians and drew him beating an elderly male weaver (Guaman Poma 1980 [1615]: fig. 647). In his manuscript titled, “History of the Origin and Genealogy of the Incas” (my translation), Murúa included a code of letters and numbers containing the “instructions for a famous belt of llipi or cumbi [resplendent or fine cloth] only worn by coyas in the fiestas called çara [Q. corn]; it has 104 [warp yarns] and their duplicates. Eight are at the extremities, four on one side and four on the other” (Murúa ms. reproduced in Derossiers 1986: 236; my translation). Coya is frequently glossed as queen, but refers to Inca women who were “descended from the ruler [the Inca] and a woman of his bloodline” (Julien 2000: 311). In the later years of Tawantinsuyu (the Inca empire), when the Inca ruler married his full sister, coya referred to both his wife and his daughters.

Muruá’s 24-line code has lines for heddles numbered 1 through 12 alternating with lines of numbers, and letters representing four colors: a, c, e and v. For example:

––Yllaba -- 1 – (Yllaba or Illawa is Quechua, hereafter abbreviated as Q., for heddle, the strings that encircle and lift selected warps)

Y x.a.3.e.a.3.c.3.v.x.c.x.a.4.c.3.a.—

–– Yllaba -- 2 –

Y 7.a.4.c.3.a.2.c.2.c.3.v.3.c.3.v.6.c.8.a.3.e.3.a.2.c.––

–– Yllaba -- 3 [and so on]

Although reproducing this belt would give us unparalleled insights into Inca ritual dress and the meaning of qumpi, the highest quality cloth (considered by many contemporary Andean scholars to mean tapestry), the code remained unbroken for nearly 400 years.