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 very beautiful and intricate braids!
These textiles were usually found wrapped around mummified human remains. The mummies were 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 seem to be the main way wealth and status were 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. Most were probably made by hand-held loop braiding. The photo above is one type. (This piece may 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 sometimes meters in length, often wrapped around the uppermost part of the mummy, in the general area of the head. 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 beforehand. (I highly recommend both of these!)
Rodrick is probably most well-known for his instructional kumihimo (Japanese braiding) dvds and 2 seminal kumihimo books: Braids: 250 Patterns from Japan, Peru, and Beyond — on Marudai (round braiding stand) braids, and Making Kumihimo — on Takadai braids, the main English-language reference for braiding on a Takadai (flat braiding stand). His recent collaborations with Terry Flynn are Andean Sling Braids, and Sling Braiding Traditions and Techniques, two books on yet another Andean braid tradition.
Only in Rodrick’s workshops or lectures do you find out about his equally impressive, unpublished research in analyzing and recreating ancient flat pre-Incan braids.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!
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 loop braided textiles had many different types of structures (‘weaves’). Most were made with various types of twining. Other braiding structures were used, too. The two red and orangy pieces above by Rodrick (left-center of photo) have oblique (ie braided) plain double-weave, with contrasting narrow blue strips of oblique twining. In these two pieces, the strips of blue twining occasionally dive under the upper layer of the braid, and are hidden between the two layers of plain weave. (Plain weave is also known as “tabby” weave—it’s the most well-known weave structure: over-under-over-under on one row, and under-over-under-over on the following row of weaving or braiding. Twining has a very different structure.)
The bold-patterned repp-like braid at the lower left was done with
single course oblique twining (SCOT)(sorry, I was wrong about this!!! Rodrick now tells me this repp piece was done in plain weave, as were the original Peruvian braids he based his on), and a color-manipulation technique I’ve been calling color-linking, here for instance to keep the yellow color of the right edge from migrating across the whole braid.
Here’s a quote from Noémi Speiser, in her Manual of Braiding (p 40):
In contrast to the strictly standardized Kara-kumi sashes [Japanese twined braids], 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! as in my gold and blue braid two photos down. (Use bicolor loops for the 2 alternating colors within a column.) 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!!!!
[for more about Andean flat braids as a loop braiding technique, as well as more photos of Rodrick’s braids, see my notes on Andean loop braiding below. For books and other resources on Andean braids see my “resources” list at the very bottom of this page.]
Loop braiding in Andean braids:
A few days before my first Rodrick Owen workshop, I happened to exchange emails with a Braid Society member in England. I told her that I was looking forward to taking Rodrick’s upcoming workshop. Aware that I was a loop braider, the other braider mentioned in her reply that at a recent workshop in England, Rodrick had set one of the participants to “making those Peruvian headband braids of his, but with loops…”
I almost fell over with shock when I read that email! 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. I knew he was a famous braider, and my friend Anne, who had taken his workshops, told me that besides kumihimo, Rodrick also taught “Peruvian braids,” which were made by hand, not on braiding stands. That sounded really interesting to me, but I certainly didn’t expect it would have anything directly to do with loop braiding.
The very next day after reading that exciting 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. My friend Anne had already told me that twining was very important in ancient Peruvian braiding, so I pricked up my ears and actually read that section instead of skimming it. It turned out that twining was something I had already done (without realizing it) in making certain European finger loop braids (the ones called “bends” and “chevrons” in the old English loop braiding manuscripts). Then, on page 77 came this succinct and 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.
OMG! I had heard of hand-held loops in reference to ancient Japanese loop braiding (kute-uchi) from Masa(ko) Kinoshita’s site LMBRIC. But hand-held loop braiding for “old Peruvian braids”?!! Who was Mary Frame? And what were these old Peruvian braids, anyway? I couldn’t find any images online, just references to sling braids, which Anne had told me were completely different from the flat braids Rodrick taught.
I immediately followed Noémi Speiser’s very clear illustration on page 77 of Old English Pattern Books to make some hand-held loop braids with single course oblique twining—usually shortened to SCOT, especially by ply-split braiders. (That illustration how-to is a great introduction to hand-held loops. The braid it creates is a basic kute-uchi braid, of a different type from the ones I teach in my Kute-uchi tutorial.)
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 second braid has what appear to be animal images.)
First braid: Original is in the Liverpool Museum, UK, ref.# 51.68.509
Second braid: 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. (Ends of surviving braids are either eroded away, or finished with a fringe of finer braids.)
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.
However you don’t actually have to hold all the loops – it’s fine to lay one or more sections aside while working on another section, or even the whole piece when getting up to take a break. I’ll loosely drape a bunch of loops around a handy clamp or one end of the header stick I may be using. In the photos above that piece of wood with knobs on it in my lap was what I laid the loops down on whenever I got up from my braiding. Anything that can hold the ‘uppers’ and ‘lowers’ of the loops separate. With Andean braids, I don’t find it necessary to set each loop on a comb or do anything special to keep the loops in their exact left-to-right order. I usually work with wool for these braids, which seems not to slip out of order much. But more basically, the structures of most of these braids keep the loops firmly in order up at the fell of the braid. This makes it easy to pick the correct loop/s to work with later, even if they don’t happen to be in exactly the right order on your hand. (This is not the case for most hand-held Japanese braids, btw!)
*1. Other, non-braided textiles of these cultures included weavings, sprang, twining, cross-knit looping (this has also been called “single-needle knitting”—a type of looping often included in the category of naalbinding—in ancient Peru this technique was used among other things to make incredibly detailed 3-D textile 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 rectangular “insets” surrounded by golden tan areas are woven. The gold areas are a warp-faced plain weave, and [according to Adele Cahlander’s book which I now have, see resource list] the colorful rectangles they enclose are human figures woven in “complementary warp weave with substitution.” (I’ll have to ask Laverne Waddington to explain that to me!)
The other 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”
(Collingwood was actually referring to tablet/ card-weaving traditions rather than to South American braiding, but it certainly applies here as well!)
The braiding itself is a type that I’ve done in Rodrick’s workshops…a mix of balanced plain-weave [technically “balanced plain oblique interlacing”] and warp-faced counter-twining [oblique countered 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. (My Terminology page explains some of these weaving/braiding structural terms)
*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. Andean sling braids are quite solid, usually square, rectangular or round in cross-section, and are often magnificently patterned. Sling braids were also present in burial sites of pre-Incan cultures, but unlike the flat braids, they have survived to the present day as a traditional textile technique in Peru and Bolivia. They are made by a very different method than the ancient flat braids.
Andean Sling braids, by Rodrick Owen and Terry Newhouse Flynn
Sling Braiding: Traditions and Techniques, by Rodrick Owen and Terry Newhouse Flynn
Sling braids can be braided in the traditional manner (“on the fist” with no equipment); on a card with slots; on a murudai; or on a specialized braiding stand called a core-frame, developed by Rodrick Owen and made by BraidersHand. The core-frame is an add-on to a marudai, specifically for those sling braid patterns in which a core of supplemental colors are carried hidden inside the braid and brought out at the discretion of the braider (who swaps them with other colors that are sent back into the core). If a hidden core of colors is used, the surface pattern of the braid can have dramatic color changes that are not possible with most braiding methods.
The first book has detailed instructions, and patterns for over a hundred beautiful braids! These include patterns that require a hidden ‘core’ of extra colors, as well as patterns that don’t require a core of extra colors.
The second book has more patterns, historical information about slings, and instructions for embellishments and starting and ending variations for these braids.
Braiders in Rodrick’s workshops have been making these braids as thick, authentic sling-type braids, down to fine, delicate braids for jewelry. This does not become a quick, automatic braiding method like fingerloop braiding, I find it slower and more methodical. But the braid it produces is very impressive! Well worth the extra time.
(Both core and “no-core” sling braids can be made on a card with slots, as shown in this book, or the traditional way with no equipment – all threads held by one fist and braided by the other hand. Rodrick and Terry’s book doesn’t teach the fist method per se, but if you learn that method elsewhere – there are links to some video tutorials in my sidebar, under “other braiding sites” – you can then use the pattern set-ups in the book that apply to braiding on a card for braiding “on the fist”.)
Other than taking one of Rodrick’s workshops or seeing his slide presentations, the only sources of information that I know of on these braids are the books and museums below. The books have interesting information, but unfortunately, none have high quality photos. Searching for online museum images is the best bet for good quality images. Currently only a few of these Pre-Incan braids come up in my searches, but museums are adding images of their collections online all the time, so there may be more in the future. Museums may not know to label these as “braids”, so good search words to use would be various combinations of the following: textile, Pre-Columbian, Nazca, Nasca, Paracas, plait, headband, turban (these braids have occasionally been called “turban braids”), braided, camelid, Peru, etc.
Mary Frame is an expert on South American textiles, and was the first to suggest that pre-Incan flat braids may have 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.) Fascinating resource for all kinds of textile techniques and ideas besides braiding — embroidery, weaving, looping (as in ‘cross-knit looping’ – not 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. This book was Rodrick’s first introduction to these braids. 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. They disappeared by the time of the Incan Empire, though sling braiding has survived to the present.
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.
Last updated July 20, 2019
© 2013–2019 Ingrid Crickmore
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