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Royal Inca Weavers

            By: Joseph Fabish, Huamachuco Textile Project


In Huamachuco, descendants of royal weavers produce beautiful belts and blankets that are world reknown.


    In 1977, the only way into Tulpo, Mollepata, and Mollebamba, towns located within the boundaries of the ancient ranch of Tulpo, was by walking or by horse. I recognized that something had happened that set these people and their blankets apart from others in Peru. The textiles around Tulpo, Mollepata, and Mollebamba were just far too different and beautiful to think otherwise. More than twenty-five years later I was to learn why.
The Huamachuco Textile Project was an effort by a group of experts in anthropology, history, symmetry, and other disciplines brought together to understand the blankets’ history as well as analyzing other textiles collected over a period of thirty years (1977-2006). Although blankets have been woven in the Peruvian highlands for thousands of years, this tradition evolved over the last 100 years or so. Striped blankets used by the indigenous population around Huamachuco were woven on pre-Hispanic back-strap (callua) looms while banded and checkerboard patterned blankets were woven on treadle looms introduced during colonial times when obrajes (centers of textile manufacture) were established especially on large haciendas. In the obrajes Merino sheep, also introduced by the Spanish, provided the dominant fiber used to manufacture textiles. Large herds of sheep soon replaced the native camilids of pre-Hispanic times especially in the region around Huamachuco.


History of a royal belt


    The ancient lands around the hacienda Tulpo make up the blanket area. Since the time of Huayna Capac to around 1572, these lands were used as royal pastures (soto reales) for the camelids whose fleece was used to weave cumbi, mostly tapestry woven textiles for the Inca and Huamachuco nobility. There was another type of cumbi, however, that was also woven for the nobility during Inca times used in belts. During one of the trips into the blanket area, Dr. Lynn Meisch, an andeanologist, weaving expert, and anthropologist at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, observed that I was using a handwoven belt to strap my sleeping bag. I had used the same belt for more than twenty-five years, not only because it was very beautiful but also because it was very different than the most belts woven in the region.
    Dr. Meisch had learned about the belts from a paper presented by Sophie Desrosiers at the Junius B. Bird Conference on Andean Textiles in 1984.  Desrosiers had decrypted and interpreted coded information taken from the last page in the once lost original (Galvin) Murúa chronicle written around the end of the 16th century. The document was a technical description on how to weave a belt used only by the “coya”  (Inca queens and princesses) during important festivities and events. Desrosiers wove two examples of the belt but concluded that the technical description encoded by Murúa was wrong and that it was likely impossible to weave the belt described in four colors. However, the belt around my sleeping bag looked similar to the one woven by Desrosiers and described by Murúa in four colors.


The Survival of Murúa’s “Chumbi Sara”

    In 2004 I, along with Horacio Rodriguez, located a belt weaver in the town of Tulpo. I showed her one of the coya belts asking if she knew what it was. When she said yes Horacio began to document the interview on video. She told us that the belt, woven using a small back-strap loom, was called “sarita” and in order to weave the belt she first had to weave a sampler because of the many sticks (24 of them) used in the manipulation of the warps in such a tiny width of 5 centimeters. After we returned to La Yeguada I informed Dr. Meisch of our findings. She became so excited that we decided to return that very evening to collect more data from the belt weaver. Sara is the quechua word for corn. And the colors for the belt described by Desrosiers in her analysis of the Murúa document were red, yellow, purple and green.

    In 2005, Dr. Meisch and I, along with Horacio Rodriguez, presented a joint paper on the coya belts, now properly named saritas. We concluded that the colors of the belt relate to the colors of corn found in the Peruvian highlands around Cuzco. More important we concluded and proved up that Murua was accurate in his technical description and that, miraculously, the sarita belt was the only documented unbroken weaving tradition to survive from Inca times.

    Simultaneously, we learned that Isabel Fernandez had given a belt of similar description to Ann Rowe at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. She had documented textiles woven in Sincicap and San Ignacio. In San Ignacio, many women dress using an anacu (Inca woman’s dress) tied at the waist with a sarita belt. The sarita belts from San Ignacio are red, yellow, burgundy, green, and blue. During early colonial times this hacienda, along with Tulpo and Yamobamba, belonged to the lands of Juan de Sandoval and Florencia de Mora. Upon their deaths these haciendas were given back to the indigenous population. By giving these lands back it helped to insure that the ancient belt weaving traditions were preserved and passed down over the centuries. Both haciendas Tulpo and Sincicap had obrajes that utilized treadle looms and sheep wool introduced by the Spanish as far north as New Mexico and Colorado in the United States and as far south as Tierra del Fuego. The indigenous population around the Huamachuco regionadopted to these new looms and fiber bringing them into their homes for weaving blankets, ponchos, bayeta, shawls, jerga, and other items for their own use.

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