Buried textiles rarely survive even a few hundred years.
But in sites in and around what is now Peru, treasure troves of amazing textiles have been found that are thousands of years old—predating even the Incas. Including braids!
These textiles were usually found wrapped around mummified human remains. The mummies had been carefully buried in sitting position and swathed with layers and layers of rich textiles. The extreme dryness of the climate more than anything else is what preserved both the textiles and the human remains.
The people of these burials had societies that included specialized artisans. Textiles seemed to be the main way wealth and status was expressed.
Among other equally amazing textiles*¹ in those burials were some of the most intricate, varied, and beautiful braids that have ever come to light anywhere. The photo above is one type. (This piece happens to be 3 braided strips sewn together, but similar textiles were braided as one piece.)
These sites contained a wide range of other braid types and patterns, too, but I’ve only been able to find a few online images.*² Some were short and squarish, like the one in the photo. These were often in pairs, and attached to both ends of a narrower, woven band. Other braids were long bands up to several feet or even meters in length, often wrapped around the head area. These could also be quite wide, especially considering the fineness of the threads that were used.*³
Ok, so that’s the background in brief—which I knew nothing about until after I signed up for my first braiding workshop from Rodrick Owen back in 2008, and attended his slide presentation on Andean braids.
Rodrick is probably most well-known for his instructional kumihimo dvds and 2 seminal kumihimo books: Braids: 250 Patterns from Japan, Peru, and Beyond —on Marudai braids, and Making Kumihimo —on Takadai braids, the main English-language reference for braiding on a Takadai. (out of print, but findable used) His soon-to-be-released collaboration with Terry Flynn is a how-to book on Andean sling braids* that looks just as fantastic as the previous two books.
Only in Rodrick’s workshops or lectures do you find out about his equally impressive, unpublished research in analyzing and recreating ancient flat pre-Incan braids. This has been a passion of his for over 40 years.
Before I had even seen how beautiful these Andean braids are, what really excited me about them was finding out that the originals were probably loop braided!* [More info, and photos of hand-held loop braiding in endnote 5 .]
I had already signed up for Rodrick’s workshop when I found this out, and I still remember how blown-away I was—I couldn’t believe the coincidence. It seemed as if everything in braiding kept coming back to loops!
Ancient Andean braids had many different types of structures (ie ‘weaves’). Most were made with various types of twining. The two in the left / center above have oblique plain double-weave, with contrasting narrow strips of twining. The twining threads occasionally dive inside the braid, and are hidden between the two layers of plain weave.
Here’s a quote from Noémi Speiser, in her Manual of Braiding (p 40):
In contrast to the strictly standardized [Japanese] Kara-kumi sashes, in Peruvian [braids] the possibilities for ornamental patterning … are exploited to an incredible extent, by applying all kinds of novel tricks.
I love that! It really is true. Some of their braiding tricks that Rodrick has figured out are mind-boggling to me. And there are still a few that he hasn’t figured out yet. (You just aren’t allowed to poke at and undo museum specimens!)
Above is an example of one of those “novel tricks” that Andean braiders used that Rodrick has figured out:
There are six alternating colors in each multicolor path of traveling threads, on both faces of the braid. Only two alternating colors ought to be possible in a flat, twined braid! (see my gold and blue braid two photos down) How did they do it??? Until Rodrick showed me the solution, this seemed completely impossible to me!
These braiders also used their ingenuity to create amazing geometric, and even representational patterns. Below is a reproduction of a museum specimen with motifs that may be birds heads and entwined serpents. These were common and probably highly significant motifs in pre-columbian textiles. This braid was made by Nora Rogers, a friend and colleague of Rodrick’s, and an inspiration to me and many other braiders and textile artists.
Below is a photo that’s been on this blog a long time in my “about me” page. It has examples of normal bicolor courses of twining threads, each with two alternating colors (the lines of alternating dark and light blue, and of alternating orange and gray):
When the two threads of a twining pair are two different colors, those two colors will alternate on each face of the braid, changing each time the pair is twined.
This braid was loosely based on one of Rodrick’s braids, but I added the bicolor sections and may have changed the design a little.
That was just a slight variation, but these techniques could potentially be used in very different ways than they were by their originators… One of Rodrick’s braids in the first group braid photo is an original interpretation using Andean techniques, but colors and shade gradations that I don’t think of as Andean at all in style. In the past, Rodrick has even created large-scale braided art installations using some of these Andean braid structures—art pieces that apparently looked nothing like the braids that inspired them.
Rodrick Owen’s long-term dedication, commitment and ingenuity in researching, learning, and teaching others this incredible and ancient braiding tradition is truly awe-inspiring! I feel very lucky that I have been able to learn from him.
Thank you Rodrick!!!!
Oct 26, 2013
© Ingrid Crickmore 2013
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(More photos of Rodrick’s work in endnote 5.)
Other than taking one of Rodrick’s workshops or seeing his slide presentations, the only sources of info on these braids are a very few books, and difficult-to-obtain scholarly articles. (Unfortunately, none of the sources that I know of have good quality photos):
Rodrick Owen—U.S. workshops and presentations usually listed here:
Mary Frame is an expert on South American textiles, and was the first to realize these ancient Peruvian braids had been made with loop braiding. She has published some fascinating scholarly articles on social and other aspects of Andean textiles.
Raoul d’Harcourt, Textiles of Ancient Peru and Their Techniques, 1934, republished in paperback in 1974 and 1987.
Classic book. D’Harcourt describes the structures of several braids (also called plaits) among many other textile techniques, with black and white diagrams supplementing the text, and grainy black and white photos in the “Plates” section. No mention of loop braiding. (I have been warned that a few of d’Harcourt’s diagrams and descriptions have some inaccuracies.) Interesting resource for all kinds of textile techniques and ideas besides braiding—embroidery, weaving, looping (not as a braiding technique), edging/ finishing, more.
Noémi Speiser, The Manual of Braiding
Peruvian braids start in Ch.3 (p.25) but aren’t limited to that chapter. See also Ch.6 pp 40-41, and possibly elsewhere.
Structural details carefully described, though not as loop-braiding techniques. Black and white diagrams and drawings. Eight black and white photos of Peruvian braids in last section of book (plates 3 and 4)
Noémi Speiser, Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, p 77.
One page of instructions with clearly-drawn illustrations showing how to make a hand-held loop braid of simple single course oblique twining. Good intro to hand-held loop braiding, of a Peruvian and Kute-Uchi type quite different from the one in my Kute-Uchi tutorial on this blog.
Alta Ravlin Turner, Finger Weaving: Indian Braiding,1973
An old classic. Small, almost pamphlet-size how-to book on both North American ‘fingerweaving’ style braiding, and simple Peruvian style braiding done with free ends. Here’s a link to Franco’s blogpost showing a page and a project from the book.
Adele Cahlander wrote about many different aspects of South American textiles. I don’t know yet which of her works include references to these braids, will update this when I know more.
Double Woven Treasures from Old Peru–this is probably the book that discusses the “pendant” in endnote #2. I just ordered this book…
Museums (not a complete list):
Museo Nacional de Arqueología Antropología e Historia del Perú, Lima, Peru
The Textile Museum, Washington D.C. U.S.A
The British Museum, London, England
the Houn museum, Kobe, Japan
Museum der Kulturen, Basel, Switzerland
American Museum of Natural History, New York, USA
Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, California, USA
Amano Museum, Lima, Peru
The Berlin Ethnological Museum, Berlin, Germany
Museums don’t keep all their collections on permanent display. To see their pre-Incan braided textiles, you may have to contact the museum well ahead of time to arrange a private viewing.
Flat, braided textiles were produced by several pre-Incan Andean cultures.
Here’s a clear, succinct timeline of the cultures that preceded the Incan conquest. (On the Textile Museum of Canada’s website). Click on a specific culture at the bottom of their page for more info about each one.
This wikipedia overview of pre-Columbian cultures in Peru goes back even further in time. Evidence of textiles have been found as far back as some of the earliest “sendentary” cultures in these areas.
*1. Other, non-braided textiles of these cultures included weavings, sprang, twining, cross-knit looping (sometimes forming incredibly detailed 3-D/ bas-relief figures), weft-wrapping, painted textiles, and more, all very finely-detailed and colorful. It’s easier to find images of the weavings and bas-relief looped work than of the braids.
*2. Unless you have access to certain museums, the main/ only way I know of that you can see full-color images of these amazing ancient braids is at one of Rodrick’s slide presentations. He has visited museums all over the world to examine and photograph their Andean braid collections as part of his ongoing research in reconstructing them. Unfortunately I can’t post his museum photos here on my blog—museums have stringent copyright restrictions on their images.
The only good braid images that I have found online are a few that the British Museum has made available on their public website, with broader copyrights that permit reproduction for “own use,” and sharing online etc for non-commercial educational use.
Here’s one of them, half of the fabric of this ‘pendant’ was woven, and the other half was braided—simultaneously!
The golden tan areas are woven in a warp-faced plain weave with
embroidered [correction: woven technique--"complementary warp weave with substitution," according to Adele Cahlander's book, see resource list] human figures. The darker reddish areas are braided. The braided and the woven sections were somehow constructed together as one piece! The museum description states that it is a “single piece of double layer camelid braiding and warp-faced plain weave”. If you go to “other views” in the museum link (click on the museum item number under the image), you can see that the front and the back have reversed braided and woven areas. Rodrick told me that Adele Cahlander described this or a very similar pendant in one of her books. When I find that reference I will add it to my resources list above.
Incredible! Here’s an apropos quote from the late South American archeologist Junius Bird that I found on p.41 of Speiser’s Manual of Braiding:
In plaiting, as in weaving, nearly every conceivable elaboration was developed beyond the dictates of necessity…demonstrating how fixed in their tradition was a willingness to attempt the difficult. ~ Junius Bird
Peter Collingwood had a pithier line:
“The willful pursuit of complexity”
(This quotation came up in a recent exchange on Braids_and_Bands. I don’t know exactly what textile tradition or practice Collingwood was referring to, but it certainly applies here!)
The braiding itself is a type that I’ve done in Rodrick’s workshops…a mix of balanced plain weave with counter twining. The plain weave braiding is in the tipped squares, and the oblique counter twining is the curvy up-and-down lines going around those squares.
*3. Usually of very finely-spun camelid fiber, meaning wool from a llama, alpaca, or vicuna-type animal. This wasn’t their only fiber source, they also made textiles from cotton and agave-type fibers. Weavings often had a cotton warp, and camelid wool weft.
*4. Sling braids are thick, usually square-shaped and often magnificently patterned. These were also present in burial sites of pre-Incan cultures, but unlike the flat braids, they are still a traditional textile in Peru and Bolivia. They are made by a very different technique than the flat braids.
Sling braids can be braided in the traditional manner (held in one fist, and braided by the other hand); on a card with slots; on a murudai; or on a specialized braiding stand recently developed by Rodrick Owen and made by BraidersHand. I believe Rodrick and Terry’s new book can be used with any of the four methods, though the focus of the book is how to make them on Rodrick’s new invention, the core-stand.
The book has patterns for over a hundred beautiful braids! Some patterns are made by carrying a hidden core of extra colors in the center of the braid that are brought out at the discretion of the braider.
*5. Loop braiding in Andean braids
A few days before my first Rodrick Owen workshop, in an email from a Braid Society member in England there was an off-hand mention that at a recent workshop, Rodrick had set somebody to “making those Peruvian braids of his, but with loops…”
I almost fell over with shock when I read that! I had been loop braiding avidly for a couple of years by then, and had signed up for Rodrick’s workshop to learn more about braiding in general. (My friend Anne had told me that besides kumihimo, Rodrick also taught “Peruvian braids,” which were made by hand, not on braiding stands.) The very next day after reading that email, I was browsing through my brand-new copy of Noémi Speiser’s Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, and I came across her chapter on twining. On page 77 was this short, exciting paragraph, followed by a diagram:
A method for producing single-course oblique twining in sections, with HAND HELD rather than finger-held loops, was suggested independently by Mary Frame for old Peruvian, and Masa Kinoshita for old Japanese braids. Many indications support the hypothesis in both cases.
Everything seemed to be converging at once! I had heard of old Japanese loop braiding (kute-uchi) from Masa(ko) Kinoshita’s site LMBRIC. But loop braiding for “old Peruvian braids”?!! Who was Mary Frame? And what were these old Peruvian braids, anyway? At the time, I couldn’t find out anything about them online, other than mentions of sling braids which Anne had said were completely different from the flat braids Rodrick taught.
I followed Noémi Speiser’s diagram on page 77 to make some hand-held loop braids with single course oblique twining (this is usually shortened to SCOT, especially in ply-split braiding). It was a great introduction to hand-held loops. That particular braid is also a basic kute-uchi braid.
As it turned out, we did almost no SCOT type twining in Rodrick’s workshop. The first type of braiding he taught was something he called “counter-twining,” which was very common in Andean braids.
Countered twining produces a very different effect from twining in one direction. The texture can look similar to a knit stitch. Rodrick’s two Andean braid reconstructions below are made with a weaving wool with crisp, firm definition that shows this ‘stitch’ very clearly. (I love the way the original braiders played with the geometric patterning within these braids! If you look carefully, you’ll see that the braid on the right has what appear to be animal images.)
Left: Original is in the Liverpool Museum, UK, ref.# 51.68.509
Right: Original is in The Textile Museum, U.S.A, ref.# 1966.7.236E
Using free ends (not loops) to braid this counter twining structure means braiding with increments of four threads. Each of the four threads in a group has to be manipulated in a specific way each time one group of four threads crosses another group of four threads.
Rodrick also showed how the same counter-twined structure could be made with hand-held loops! When I tried this, the braiding moves felt more efficient, there was no fussing over which strand was which, and there were (effectively) half the number of threads to keep track of. Plus, the braid was easier to tighten.
I found out from Rodrick that Mary Frame is an authority on ancient Andean textiles who realized that hand-held loop braiding must have been the method for most old Andean braids. As a loop braider with no previous knowledge of ancient Andean textiles, I’ve found in Rodrick’s workshops that these braids feel very natural to make with loop braiding.
I gather that Mary Frame deduced loop braiding from her understanding of the braids themselves (consistently having paired elements, etc), not necessarily from seeing loops left intact at the ends of the braids. Rodrick has since seen one museum specimen that actually had all the loops still present at the end of the braid, corroborating Mary Frame’s hypothesis.
When Rodrick found out about Mary Frame’s loop braiding hypothesis for ancient Andean braids, he had already been recreating these braids for decades using free-end braiding techniques. (He may not have been as overjoyed as I was to find out that the originals had been braided with loops!) Since then, he’s been making them both ways.
In Noémi Speiser’s Manual of Braiding, she first introduces complex Peruvian braids in Ch.3 starting on page 26. She does not directly mention loop braiding here, though on page 27 she has one oblique reference:
I myself reproduce them all with free hanging ends. But it is quite possible that other methods were actually used in ancient Peru. ~ Noémi Speiser
She was quite specific later, in Old English Pattern Books, citing Mary Frame’s well-founded hypothesis that old Peruvian braids were made by loop braiding. I can’t quite understand why she skirted around this in her Manual, unless out of academic politeness—perhaps not wanting to reveal another researchers’ work before the researcher herself publishes it?
Earlier, on page 26 of the Manual, Speiser mentions how complex and labor-intensive these braids are:
[It] is infinitely laborious and time-consuming. Whoever has tried even a small sample…will know this, and he will profoundly admire Peruvian specimens of great lengths, worked impeccably with large quantities of finest yarn.
Even when using loops, it definitely takes time to accomplish a decent length of these braids. But I find it much faster than working with all loose ends. And there is a pleasant, relaxed feel to the braiding, a nice rhythm of production.
Another inherent advantage to loop braiding is that it’s no more difficult to braid with fine threads than thick ones. The manipulation of the threads is done nearer to the ends of the loops, where, practically speaking, they are essentially the size of one’s hand, regardless of the actual thickness of the thread. (When working with large numbers of loops, fine threads are actually easier to handle than thick ones, because you can fit more of them in one hand.)
© Ingrid Crickmore 2013
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