Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



In Approaching Textiles, Varying Viewpoints: Proceedings of the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2000


Copyright © 2000 by the author(s).


Indigenous Andeans and the Spanish chroniclers in the early colonial era wrote about the pre-Hispanic and colonial use of what we commonly call cactus fiber for clothing and other textiles in Ecuador. In this paper I use colonial accounts and ethnographic evidence to examine the use of such fibers in clothing and other textiles and their social and cultural significance. For example, the Incas considered cactus-fiber garments barbarous and uncivilized compared to those made of cotton and camelid hair, and used this as part of their justification for conquest; they were bringing civilization to the savages. While Ecuador's damper climate prevents the preservation of pre-Hispanic textiles like those found on Peru's arid coast, there is some archaeological and ethno-historical evidence that allows us to trace continuities in the use of cactus fiber for cloth. This practice continues today with fiber from the Furcrea and Agave plants, the former indigenous to the Andes and the latter introduced from Mexico. Although there have been changes in many of the garments and textiles produced, recent ethnographic. research conducted by myself and others offers information about how Furcrea and Agave are harvested, processed, spun, and woven or looped into finished textiles, which permits us to postulate how pre-Hispanic cactus-fiber cloth may have been made. Such reconstruction is possible because of the conservatism of cactus fiber-processing techniques in the Ecuadorian Andes. Barbarous or practical? Savage or sophisticated? Cactus-fiber textiles obviously convey multiple messages.