Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 15, 2017
Denise Y. Arnold and Elvira Espejo The Andean Science of Weaving: Structures and Techniques for Warp-Faced Weaves New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015. 352 pp.; 450+ color ills. Hardcover $95.00 (9780500517925)

The Andean Science of Weaving: Structures and Techniques of Warp-Faced Weaves is a monumental volume that contributes an important perspective to the study of Andean textiles: “a world view perceived from a weaver’s ‘fingertips’” (18). This tremendous undertaking by authors Denise Y. Arnold and Elvira Espejo represents years of research and fieldwork experience, as well as extensive and creative thought not only about the way in which weavers of the Andean highlands construct textiles—particularly in Bolivia, and also in parts of Peru—but how this process of making textiles is inextricably integrated into the mindset (and language) of the cultures of the region. Furthermore, they argue that these processes of production engage and reflect the ontological perception of textiles as animate objects that connect social constructs and represent knowledge systems on a broader scale.

The authors see this entire process of textile making as a kind of epistemology or theory of knowledge, and this book systematically examines the learning sequence and conceptual building blocks of the making of Andean textiles. The intention to elevate the discussion of textiles to a higher level of cultural discourse is one that Arnold has particularly contributed to in her long history of social anthropological studies in the region for more than twenty-five years. Espejo, currently the director of collections of Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore (MUSEF) in La Paz, is an Aymaran artist, writer, and weaver who brings to the subject her understanding and personal experience in the development and learning processes of the weaver’s art. She also brings to the project her deep understanding of the three languages engaged in this study, Aymara, Quechua, and Spanish. Together the authors tease out the textile working procedures and contextualize them as part of knowledge systems. They describe their intention as bringing together at the same time the perspectives of the process of making textiles and the view of the textile as an object. They apply this systemic Andean viewpoint to enable them to examine and compare studies of textile traditions of other regions, including Europe and North America.

From a general perspective in textile studies, we can see some universal aspects to weaving. The movement of yarns interlacing in specific sequences forming textile structures occurs in many regions of the world, and throughout history. The way that tools and methods facilitate this construction can also be somewhat universal or alternatively, unique, culture to culture. The complex weaves of the Andes developed over millennia are created and controlled by the knowledge and hand of the weaver. This may reflect a different approach when compared to other cultures that developed semi-mechanical means to facilitate the production and reproduction of complex textile designs using patterning systems enabled by modified or sophisticated looms, such as the drawloom found in China and the Mediterranean or the jacquard loom developed in Europe, for example. In addition, the focus in the highlands’ weaving tradition is on the use of the warp—the first set of yarns placed on the loom—as the active patterning agent. The complex weave structures and related designs are strictly controlled by the weaver herself and formulated based on visual and mathematical systems and clues, which are presented here from the weaver’s perspective. To explain the process, the authors begin by examining the first steps of setting up the warp on the loom, then follow the weaver’s use of counting methods and systems of yarn selection to form designs. To walk the reader through this complicated process, Arnold and Espejo have prepared both textual and visual explanations of these sequential stages of production. The book is rich in visual materials—from detailed photos of ancient and modern textiles to images of maquettes created to demonstrate sequences of patterning and weaving—to facilitate the reader’s understanding of this complex information.

Section 4, “Textile Structures and Techniques,” is the core of the book and is an important and encyclopedic resource of textile structures and techniques. It presents us with a dizzying array of categories of structures and patterning sequences used to create designs integrated into the weaving process. Each technique is accompanied by a series of brief sections of description, woven structure, process, and historical development. The density of information is sometimes difficult to follow, but the visuals—including ethnographic examples, newly woven sample structures, and maquettes of partially woven examples—help the reader interpret the text.

From my perspective, the foundational principle of Andean weaving is the use of a continuous, uncut warp, with the warp measured out to the future size of its intended final object, be it a belt or bag or half-mantle. The loom, which is constructed around the warp (unlike in many other regions of the world in which the warp is threaded into a previously existing loom), is set to accommodate its dimensions and fitted thread by thread. To facilitate the weaving of a variety of types of fabric, patterned in a regular, hand-selected sequence, the Andean weaver may lay out the warp in a series of colors coming from multiple balls of yarn—one by one or in groups—planned out ahead of the weaving process to add effects to design and/or structure, as well as depth and dimensionality to the finished object. The continuous warp used in the Andes, which generally remains uncut even in the finished object, therefore defines the trajectory of the weaving process.

Because the focus of this dense publication is the tradition of warp-patterned weaving, the understanding of the most basic aspects of preparing the warp is critical. What is surprisingly lacking is a very basic look at the warping process, itself. The discussion about “warping up” the loom omits the critical beginning stage of this process: How is this done? The book has many beautifully illustrated images of textiles and weavers at the loom: few if any actually show the warping process itself. While readers knowledgeable about weaving may already understand this process, the authors’ stated goal is to communicate to a wider audience; a few fundamental detail photos of this most basic of weaving processes would therefore have been useful to lay the groundwork. In addition, with the emphasis on warping layers and color sets (which also form the structure of the book’s chapters,) views of warps as well as cross-sectional views of the top and lower layers of some of the weaving structures would have been helpful. When using this book, it may be the illustrations with sample weavings that provide keys to understanding, especially for those new to the field.

The book’s introduction provides an in-depth summary of the ways in which scholars historically have analyzed textiles as well as how the dichotomy of structure vs. technique as the basis for understanding textile constructions has developed in the field. In the presentation of weaves and techniques in Section 4, this issue surfaces in some of the terminology: Is something a structure or process, a weave effect or a weave structure? While the sequence used to examine the various textile formats follows a logic based on the weaver’s experience, its complexity requires patience and focus on the part of the reader. In spite of the difficulty, the reader (as perhaps not unlike the weaver new to her craft as she masters the process) is rewarded for the effort, as there is real insight to be gained. This is especially true for scholars of Precolumbian textiles who identify categories of working processes reflected in the ancient examples as well as those working in colonial and ethnographic collections who parse categories of weavers’ activities that may reflect cultural groups. Although the primary focus of the book is Andean warp-patterned weaving as it is currently practiced in the highlands, the authors use examples of Precolumbian textiles to demonstrate specific approaches, especially with regard to the various complex counting systems that are used as the basis for structural patterning by contemporary weavers. Groundbreaking work by the scholars Ann Rowe, Sophie Desrosiers, and Amy Oakland, in their examinations of Precolumbian textiles of the Inca, Paracas, and Wari cultures, have established broad cultural groupings of textiles through the identification of their technical traits. An important concept that emerges from the work done by Arnold and Espejo is the possibility of enabling researchers of ancient textiles to potentially recognize weaving groups based, not only on the technical traits but on the specific counting systems embedded in the extant examples, which may in turn lead to attributions of cultural and ethnic identity.

The authors’ stated goal at the beginning of the book is to introduce the weaver’s perspective to a wider public. Given the depth and level of detail they bring to the subject, and with the multiplicity of types of information, which may make the book difficult even for the most knowledgeable of textile specialists, I am not sure that they will achieve their goal. While there is a concerted attempt to present a complex array of information in a manner that is accessible and navigable, this is not always successful or consistent. But that is not to negate the importance of what they do present and the myriad insights they bring to the subject, only a few of which I have been able to mention in this brief review. Their undeniably important contribution has been to underscore the ways textile structures derive from their production and ultimately, from the mindset of the weaver, whose conceptualizations are based on systems of memory, mathematics, and thought, the fundamental building blocks of Andean culture.

Elena Phipps
Independent scholar