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.


Many weavers living near Cuzco, Peru are reviving the use of natural dyes in their traditional textiles. Since the introduction of chemical dyes in the late 19th century, the knowledge and practice of natural dyeing has declined dramatically for numerous reasons, including convenience, color preference, and environmental problems that have reduced the availability of natural dyestuffs. However, in the long heritage of Andean textiles, this epoch of chemical dyes is relatively short.

I began studying Andean textiles in the Cuzco region over twenty-five years ago. In 1979, I was a weaver/fiber artist when I visited Peru for the first time. This trip changed the direction of my life, and in 1997 I completed my Ph.D. in Latin American Studies after living for most of 1996 on a Fulbright grant in the region southeast of Cuzco known as Ausangate. My hypothesis prior to living in Pacchanta and learning to weave with the family of Maria Merma Gonzalo was that perhaps the introduction of aniline dyes and synthetic yarns were changing the cultural significance and meanings in the traditional weavings of this area. Very quickly I learned that based on local Quechua aesthetics weavers were persistently weaving their ancestral designs but using some new materials. Maria used an odd Spanish word (she speaks primarily Quechua) for their use of synthetics calling it the “moda” or style. Ausangate is the highest peak in Southern Peru at 20,800’ known locally as an Apu (Quechua) or sacred mountain spirit effecting the lives of all those who live near it, even as far away as Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. In the geographic landscape of this region with the land tones of muted browns and golds in the dry season and shades of green in the wet season, the use of color made people visually identifiable as locals from great distances and it made them “stand out.”

An unusual practice in this area is the application of sequins and white beads to waistcoats, hats, ponchos and women’s shoulder cloths (Quechua: lliclla). For local weavers, it does not matter so much where the materials come from but rather in the case of sequins it was their quality of reflecting light when the sun hit them that made them appealing (fig. 4)