Collection of Andean Textiles

For thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, the weavers of ancient Peru created textiles that played important roles in ritual, political, and social life. They drew upon natural resources including cotton, the hair of alpaca and vicuña, and diverse plants and dyestuffs to produce textiles of stunning complexity and beauty.

Whether the cloths were for ritual use and covered with symbolic designs or humble textiles used in everyday life, they all embodied a unique feature of ancient Andean weaving. Andean weavers did not weave lengths of cloth that were cut first from the loom and then into pieces that would be sewn together to make functional objects. Rather, they inevitably wove cloth with four selvages, or finished edges—a complete unit intended to be removed from the loom and used without cutting any threads.

This manner of weaving not only entails extraordinary technical prowess but also represents a powerful cultural idea: a textile woven to size and shape, complete in its finished form is an act of intent. It required extensive conceptualization and planning before the work commenced, and it epitomized the values of a culture whose textiles—both in process and design—were imbued with meaning. The Fowler Museum collection contains over 600 ancient Andean textiles and textile fragments.

By Elena Phipps, independent scholar and curator. From her introduction to The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth.