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Andean textiles: creating cultural imagery in a digital age and recovering traditional crafts

Lead researcher: Dr Luciana Martins with Professor Denise Y. Arnold (La Paz)

Funding: AHRC

Based at Birkbeck between July 2009 and June 2013 the AHRC funded research project ‘Weaving Communities of Practice’ was undertaken in partnership with Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Aymara in Bolivia. The project involved an interdisciplinary team, working between the UK and South America, in archaeological, historical, geographic, linguistic, ethnographical and computer science research, under the direction of Dr Luciana Martins, Director of the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (CILAVS), with the collaboration of Dr Sven Helmer and Professor Alex Poulovassilis in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems at Birkbeck, in coordination with Professor Denise Y. Arnold at the Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Aymara (ILCA) in La Paz.

‘Weaving Communities of Practice’ developed a simple technical language oriented towards understanding the structures and techniques of Andean textiles from a weaver’s point of view. It used innovative methodologies, combining work in museum collections and fieldwork, digital documentation and information visualization, and an ontological modelling of these data. The project involved 12 museum collections and textile archives – in the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK, and in the Andean region of Latin America (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). It documented some 300 archaeological textiles (ca. 600-1532 CE), 50 historical textiles (1532-1900), and 200 ethnographic textiles (1901-present), in textile records especially designed by the project team.

Research in the textiles archives and museum collections was conducted in consultation with contemporary weavers to develop a region-wide documentation and mapping of weaving traditions that have been practised from at least Tiwanaku times (600-1000 CE) up to the present. The textile experts wove 160 models of specific techniques used in these museum examples to check how the techniques might have been woven in practice.

The main project outcomes were:

  • Improved accessibility of enriched data (texts, images, and videos) describing textiles’ social, historical, and cultural context, through groundbreaking new software Sawu-3D and InaSawu;
  • Recovery of lost textile traditions;
  • Enhanced understanding of Andean textiles as part of world heritage, with consideration of the value attributed to textiles from the weavers’ viewpoint.

The project provided a basis for a new understanding of how to value and catalogue textiles. From 2009 to 2011, museum curators, archaeologists and technical staff in the participating museums helped to develop the requirements of the database and subsequently received training in the use the groundbreaking new software Sawu-3D and InaSawu, and a DVD for ongoing training.

The research contributed to the enhancement of weaving activity in the region by improving the quality of the textiles and therefore their value. It recovered and reintroduced the use of ancient weaving instruments that produced finer textiles; the techniques used for shearing alpacas and llamas and for spinning their wool into finer threads; the use of traditional natural dyes, and the meaning of words in Quechua and Aymara related to specific weaving techniques and structures.

About 500 women in local communities in Bolivia received weaving classes with many reporting that they felt as if they had experienced ‘a weaving university’, and ‘recovered the “women’s science” of their grandmothers’. The number of weavers in the region has increased from 80 to around 300. Several are now training a younger generation of women, and some 50 men, in what they learned. While not formal members of the established weaving associations, many of these new weavers have found markets for their products.

A testament to the importance of this project within Bolivia is the involvement of the Cultural Foundation of the Bolivian Central Bank, the national agency overseeing Bolivia’s most important cultural institutions. The Cultural Foundation invited Denise Y. Arnold and Elvira Espejo (the project’s weaving consultant) to participate in the development of a two-year programme (2013-2015) to establish the basis for a ‘National Plan of Textile Heritage in Bolivia’.

Three full colour books about the project were published by the Fundación Xavier Albó (La Paz), a Bolivian organisation set up by the Centre of Research and Development of the Peasantry to preserve and publish important national documents. Illustrating the materials and techniques uncovered by the research, the books were written by Professor Arnold and expert weaver and project consultant, Elvira Espejo:

  • Ciencia de tejer en los Andes: estructuras y técnicas de faz de urdimbre (2012).
  • Denise Y. Arnold and Elvira Espejo. Ciencia de las mujeres. Experiencias en la cadena textil desde los ayllus de Challapata (2010).
  • Arnold, Denise Y. and Elvira Espejo. El textil tridimensional: la naturaleza del tejido como objeto y sujeto (2013).

Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore (Musef) in Bolivia created a new exhibition space including interactive computers using Sawu-3D. The new Anthropological and Archaeological Research Institute Textile Lab at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, Bolivia, expanded archaeologists’ and anthropologists’ training and established a public service for identifying Andean textiles in individual possession. One of the project participants, Claudia Rivera, then authenticated, through textile analysis, a decommissioned mummy bundle in INAR Museum, La Paz.

International recognition of the important revelations of the project are reflected in several invitations to project leaders: Elvira Espejo spoke at a UNESCO event on intangible cultural heritage in 2012 organised by Asociación Para La Promocion Y Desarrollo Del Arte Textil Andino-Apdata; Denise Y Arnold and Elvira Espejo joined the Advisory Committee on the British Museum project on Organic colourants, biological sources and dyeing technologies in Andean textiles (2011-12). In 2011, the British Museum and CILAVS set up an exhibition grouping together for the first time the complex structures and techniques discovered during the project; an exhibition on textiles and contemporary art was mounted by CILAVS at the Peruvian Embassy, London (2012).

More details of this research can be found in this journal article. A short video showing how to use the search facility has been recently developed and can be viewed here. Interest in the search facility is particularly strong among textile specialists as indicated by this article in Hand-Eye Magazine and this Weavolution blog.