Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


An elegantly dressed woman, wearing the handwoven clothing characteristic of her ethnic group, stands in front of a vendor displaying the latest machine-woven shawls from Bolivia's capital city, La Paz. The women, her daughter, and friends have just walked five hours from their rural home to attend an annual festival in the region's only town. The merchant, a young man of indigenous origin, wearing jeans, a jacket, sneakers, and a baseball cap, urges her to try on his merchandise. Glancing at her women friends for support, she opens the large safety pin holding closed her handwoven shawl and deftly slips it off her back. She hands it over to the merchant while he passes her the cheap shawl on his shoulder she eyed. He spreads her weaving open and, studying it, offers a deal: hers for his. Spectators gather. The poised woman momentarily hesitates, then makes up her mind. She takes the factory-woven cloth and quickly wraps her purchases in it. Looking pleased, she slings it over her shoulders and strides off to enjoy the festival, wearing her new acquisition. The merchant neatly folds up her shawl and places it on the ever-growing pile on the stone bench behind him, smiling slowly. If he's lucky, he can sell her shawl for $20, about $ 15 more than he paid for the industrially-woven one she took. Another handwoven textile has left the mountain communities of Bolivia, bound for the streets of La Paz and, eventually, our homes or museums.


Since the mid-1970s an uncalculably enormous quantity of fine textiles from indigenous Andean homes and communities in Peru and Bolivia have been sold to tourists or collectors. Except for a very few well-publicized exceptions - Taquile, Peru, and Otavalo, Ecuador - marketing "traditional" Andean textiles is extraordinarily disadvantageous to its indigenous weavers. Profits, tiny to great, go to merchants. Few producers know how or where to sell their textiles; high prices are paid m the U.S. or Europe, not at the source. The traffic has been so great that few fine contemporary or antique handwoven textiles remain in Peru today. Due to economic, social, and cultural changes there, relatively few communities still weave. Mounds of handwoven fabrics lie piled on La Paz streets and in stores in seemingly assembly-line quantities, but while numerous indigenous Bolivians still weave, in many "textile centers" there are few if any fine or old textiles.

The Sakaka, an ethnic group of 25,000 indigenous Andeans ("Indians") who live in northern Potosi, Bolivia, have made thousands of transactions in the past ten to fifteen years similar to the one described above. The exchange or sale of their traditional textiles for industrially-manufactured objects - aluminum pots, machine-woven shawls, factory-spun yarns - whether done in their homes or at fairs was inevitably unprofitable. The Sakaka were ignorant of the monetary value of their weavings, and received in return for them objects or cash worth only a fraction of the textiles' value in La Paz, itself small compared to their value outside Bolivia.

Almost without exception the old Sakaka textiles are gone; their makers and owners lament their loss. Yet while Sakaka homes no longer contain old textiles, the textile "tradition" thrives. Young Sakaka women and men still dedicate much time and tremendous energy to create what they consider beautiful textiles. I n the past five years the young Sakaka have developed a clothing style distinct from that of previous generations (Zorn n.d.b). While the weavings of the older generation are sought by textile dealers for sale to tourists, contemporary Sakaka textiles are not. The young Sakaka have created a new textile style that is "unsaleable" (Figure 1).