Weaving Histories

The impact of pre-Columbian techniques and designs on 20th-century artists


Detail of tunic with stepped triangles, Nazca Culture, South Coast, c.700-800, scaffold weave, camelid wool, 186 x 123 x 6 cm. Courtesy: Yale University Art College, New Haven

Sheila Hicks was a student at  Yale when she took a class on pre-Columbian art in the mid-1950s. At the time, there was only one book in the library on Andean textiles,  Raoul d’Harcourt’s Textiles of Ancient Peru and their Techniques (1934) — still essential reading on the subject  — and she saw that Anni Albers had checked it out. Hicks was captivated by the textiles produced by Andean tribes in the centuries before the Spanish Conquest of 1532, as well as those predating the Incas who ruled for the preceding 100 years. ‘The richness of the pre-Incaic textile language is the most complex of any textile culture in history,’ she has said.1 The study of Andean textiles is virtually mandatory for anyone serious about weaving. Even before the Early Nazca period (approximately 1‒450), almost all weaving techniques — such as kelim, interlocking and eccentric tapestry; pattern weaves, weft scaffolding, twining and plaiting; lace, brocade, wrapped weaving and double cloth — were already known. Hicks was impressed by how, before written language, these ancient peoples organized ideas through thread. Her own earliest weavings — such as Muñeca (1957), which is titled after the woven dolls found in Andean tombs — were simply ‘attempts to understand material structures’.2 Read the rest of this entry »