Moving to a new home includes a trip to the nearest library to read all about this new location. Next, after finding a great librarian, is being lucky enough to find a neighbor who becomes a soul mate. My new neighbor in Woodmere, New York shared my love and enthusiasm for archeology and anthropology, an interest I have had ever since my student days in South Africa when I visited the caves at Sterkfontein, outside of Johannesburg.
My renewed interest in the subject came about when my neighbor recommended a book that has stuck with me for years: Fair Gods and Stone Faces, by Constance Irwin, which was the impetus for learning about the indigenous cultures in the Americas. My husband and I have traveled the Americas discovering these cultures. Our last trip was to Peru to delve into the civilizations which were conquered by the Incas.
As a docent at the Cooper-Hewitt I have been asked to choose one object from the permanent collection to research and blog. I remember seeing two pieces of pre-Inca fabrics in the collection and am delighted at the opportunity to delve into these cultures again. I chose this mantle fragment because as textile art, its beauty is equal to any textile found anywhere or during any period.
The Peruvian desert stretches for about 1800 miles and is crossed from east to west by many streams, each sustaining a valley. The villages in these valleys were self-sustaining and social life was sedentary, well-disciplined and very productive. The dry soil of the coast helped preserve textiles which were woven mostly on a narrow back-strap looms from the wool of guanaco, vicuna, llama and alpaca as well as cotton and the maguey plant. The wool of the alpaca and llama was coarse and had no luster, while the wool of the vicuna was shiny. Occasionally human hair was woven into the textiles. While weaving the fingers were moistened with saliva which gave softness and permanence of twist.
The mantle fragment falls into the period of the Tiahuanoco coastal culture, a geographic area now part of Peru and Bolivia. The fragment is tapestry-woven with three wide bands containing highly stylized animal motifs in shades of blue, green, tan, white, black and red.
Some Nazca cloth used as many as one-hundred ninety different colors. Organic dyes were red, blue and yellow — red came from a plant related to madder or from the cochineal insect, blue from indigo, yellow from plants and flowers, and purple from a mollusk. Cotton was brown and white, the alpaca and llama fiber were beige, gray, brown, and black. The textiles were woven to size and shape and rarely cut.
In the Andean world textiles played an important part in political, social and religious ceremony. Gifts of specially woven cloth were used to strengthen social and political bonds and the dead were buried with the most precious woven cloth.
Edna Ritzenberg is a 20-year veteran of Cooper-Hewitt’s docent program, and for 28 years was a teacher in the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Schools on Long Island. A native of South Africa, she earned her BA at the University of Cape Town and her master’s in education at C.W. Post. Since her retirement from teaching she has conducted book discussions for many libraries and private groups. She and her husband have two sons and two grandchildren.