Pride in the Warp and Weft: The Ancient Art of Weaving Remains Central to Daily Life in the Bolivian Highlands, Where Remarkable Textiles Reflect the Cultural and Personal Identities of Distinct Communities

Article excerpt

Weaving is one of the least forgiving arts. Unlike drawing or painting, where one can erase or adjust at will, when weavers throw the shuttle through the shed formed by the selected warp threads and beat the well into place, they lock in one minuscule component of an overall design that defines the finished piece. One must constantly anticipate countless moves in advance going back and changing something is very difficult Spontaneity is antithetical to weaving.

But textiles continue to be handwoven, with some of the most extraordinary coming from the remote corners of the Andean highlands. In the Jalq'a culture, near Sucre, Bolivia, a decorative half skirt (aqsu in Quechua) can contain a dense, miasmic stew of animals and mythic creatures, not organized in orderly bands, but all seemingly adrift in a continuous, open space. Anarchy, whimsy, and happenstance seem to rule in a shadowy realm mostly devoid of humans, where untamed spirit creatures of all sizes compete for space as they turn every which way and even devour one another.

In truth, these weavers have to conform to the dictates of process by planning each step as they draw upon a vast inventory of forms assembled through years of patient practice. But that they are able to generate the illusion of free-form fluidity--much as an artist draws on paper--attests to a level of mastery now rare, especially in a world of ready-made clothing fashioned from machine-woven goods.

The people of the Bolivian highlands are not like nomadic herders who have produced great textiles elsewhere. They live in settled communities but occupy lands devoid of material abundance, which has forced them to make much from very little. The animals they raise--particularly the llamas and alpacas native to the Andes--have long served as a source of protein and a means of transport, but they are most valued as a source of wool for durable textiles essential to staying warm in high altitude. It is a tradition that reaches far back into pre-Conquest times, when textiles were considered the finest of arts and no amount of time or effort was too great in the pursuit of quality and beauty.

This elevated awareness of the full potential of fiber artistry survives among the Jalq'a, who inhabit a string of communities to the northwest of Sucre and their Quechua-speaking brethren, the Tarabucos, who occupy lands to the southeast. Doubtless their devotion to old ways can be attributed to isolation from the outside world, but the distinctive dress of both groups also survives out of a fierce sense of cultural pride. Their clothing remains synonymous with cultural and personal identity. The ponchos, shawls, half skirts, belts, coca bags and headgear they favor offer clues as to age, gender, social status, community origin, and convey other hidden messages invisible to unknowing eyes.

In order to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of surandino clothing, it is useful to describe the components that make up the overall outfit. Among the Tarabucos, males wear short, baggy, knee-length white trousers (calzon), a loose-fitting shirt of black wool (almilla), a tiny, finely striped poncho around the neck that covers the chest (kunka unku), and another similar ponchito without a slit, which hangs over the hips to the rear, secured by a wide leather belt often studded with rivets or worn folded to create a place for money. Over this entire ensemble men wear a much larger poncho, striped but predominately an intense red, orange, or burgundy, which can be folded and slung aver the shoulder when it is too warm. Usually a little bag for coca leaves (ch'uspa) hangs to the side. A few still wear old fashioned sandals of wood and leather, but most favor those with tire-tread soles, now ubiquitous throughout much of the Andes. Most distinctive is the montera tarabuquena, a felt hat, its form similar to a conquistador's helmet, although some specialists now believe it derives from headgear introduced by Basque sheepherders. …