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.


Repetitive pattern is laden with meaning in many cultures. In Andean cultures, where no alphabetic writing system was developed during prehispanic times, patterns and graphic codes carried a large cultural load. It is crucial to have appropriate tools to investigate the integrated properties (symmetry, color, number, direction, etc.) in the graphic codes of the ancient Andes. In this paper, I will propose some modifications to the prevailing approach to symmetry classification that better fits the patterns in Andean textiles.

Approaches to Symmetry Patterns, Modern and Ancient

An approach to classifying symmetry patterns that is called “plane pattern analysis” has been developed during the 20th century. It grows out of the study of the structures of crystals (crystallography) and group theory, a branch of mathematics (Washburn and Crowe, 1988: 3- 41). While this approach allows the classification of patterns according to precepts in western mathematics and science, the resulting classification has little to do with the indigenous categories or the processes involved in the generation of Andean patterns. People of the ancient Andes obviously had an altogether different starting point and rules for generating patterns than those used by 20th century scientists.

My research into several styles leads me to the conclusion that Andean symmetry patterns were conceptualized as pathways in space, and that Andean people drew on several models for pathways. The model that I will discuss resides in fiber technology. The geometric patterns based on this model often look like twisted cords and interlaced elements in fabric structures (Frame 1986, 1988, 1991, 1999, 2001). Another model for symmetrical patterns appears to be the locomotory pathways of mythical humans and animals (Frame 2004). The different models give rise to subtly different symmetry classes, because the walking, swimming, flying, crawling, and swinging motions of mythical figures are conventionalized in a different kind of space than the twisting and interlacing motions of elements in a fibrous matrix. The fact that I can point to two different models for symmetry patterns in ancient Andean art – fiber element pathways and locomotory pathways – raises the question: Is the crystallography approach to plane pattern analysis appropriate for all Andean patterns?