Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Silk Roads, Other Roads: Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 26-28, 2002, Northampton, Massachusetts


Copyright 2002 by the author.


In her meticulous classification of fabric structures, Irene Emery wrote that needlework "is basically one of the simplest crafts, a homely activity that can be practiced by almost anyone on almost any material. But, with fine and carefully chosen materials plus a high degree of skill and imagination in handling them, needlework can be raised almost to the rank of a fine art" (1966:246). I suspect that Emery would not object to my deletion of the word "almost" when discussing the examples of fine art embroidered by certain pre-Conquest Andeans.

Within the ancient Andean world, needlework is not exclusively identified with Paracas Necrópolis-style and Nasca-style textiles. There are, for example, exquisite cotton Chancay headcloths worked in monochromatic embroidery on square mesh openwork or on gauze (Stone-Miller 1992:pl. 49, Young-Sánchez 1992:fig. IV.10, and d'Harcourt 1962:figs. 35, 36B, 38, 40-44), Chimú textiles with embroidered details (Rowe 1984:fig. 56 and possibly pl. 11 and fig. 133), and Inca tapestry tunics with needleworked edgings (Kajitani 1982:pls. 117-119). But it was only on Peru's south coast that artisans brilliantly exploited the particular advantages of embroidery (Figure 1). In this paper I will focus on the fabrics unwrapped from conical-shaped funerary bundles buried in a cemetery on the arid Paracas Peninsula, south of Lima. This burial zone, called the Necrópolis de Wari Kayan, was used by members of Paracas/Topará communities from at least Early Horizon epoch 10 through Early Intermediate Period epoch 2 (approximately 100 B.C. to 200 A.D.).

Though they produced a variety of fabric structures using different decorative techniques, the artisans who participated in the Paracas/Topará cultural tradition overwhelmingly preferred 4/2 stem-stitch embroidery on plain weave. In a sample of over 1200 Paracas Necrópolis-style fabrics housed in collections around the world, 990 employ embroidery to create designs. Furthermore, there are nearly 100 additional finely-woven solid-color plain weaves that are undecorated; some of these may have been destined for embroidery work but were buried before it was applied. Why did Paracas/Topará artisans choose embroidery 8 1/2 times out of ten when making a decorated fabric? Why did they choose such a simple structure when technical virtuosity was not only highly prized within the Andean world but also within their reach?


The south coast of Peru between the Cañete and Grande rivers bustled with human life starting in the Early Horizon (ca. 700 B.C.), and textile production was privileged early on. Fabrics dating to the early end of the Paracas textile tradition are known by the style names Paracas Ocucaje and Paracas Cavernas. It is clear that the persons who made them were exploring a range of different ways to make and pattern cloth. Among other fabric structures, there are finely executed examples of double cloth, triple cloth, tie-dyed plain weave, gauze weave, discontinuous warp and weft plain weave, interlinking, and simple looping, as well as a considerable number of fabrics with embroidery. Roughly 60% of these early Paracas textiles – which are primarily tunics, mantles, and hoods – have designs embedded in their structures, while 40% have embroidered patterning. Many have motifs in their fields as well as in borders. It is important to note here that embroidered field designs are rare.

The woven contents of the earliest Paracas Necrópolis bundles (dating to EH 10) are primarily embroidered, though several garments have structural patterning: EH 10A mantle 210-3 (RT 897) has a discontinuous warp and weft plain weave field with large bird motifs, as well as embroidered borders with small linear style birds; EH 10A mantle 349-1 (RT 1451) and EH 10B mantle 2-3 (RT 1644) are plain-weave double cloth garments with large-scale field motifs. Neither discontinuous warp and weft plain weave nor double cloth is the most suitable structure for creating the multitude of identical motifs that were to become so prominent in the fields of Paracas Necrópolis fabrics.