Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
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 Necropolis-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-Sanchez 1992:fig. IV.10, and d'Harcourt 1962:figs. 35, 36B, 38, 40-44), Chimu textiles with embroidered details (Rowe 1984:fig. 56 and possibly pi. 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 Necropolis de Wari Kayan, was used by members of Paracas/Topara 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/Topara cultural tradition overwhelmingly preferred 4/2 stem-stitch embroidery on plain weave. In a sample of over 1200 Paracas Necropolis-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/Topara artisans choose embroidery 8 1/2 times out often 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?