Mantle (Peruvian, Paracas, 0–A.D. 100)

Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool in stem-stitch. William Alfred Paine Fund (31.501). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This magnificent mantle dated 0–A.D. 100, exquisitely embroidered throughout with animated shaman figures, is now on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it takes its place among the Incas, the Aztecs, and their predecessors in a contextual exhibition of Pre-Columbian arts. Golden Kingdoms: Luxury & Legacy in the Ancient Americas is on view February 28-May 28, 2018. This is a rare opportunity to view one of the finest textiles of Paracas culture from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Mantle border fragment (Peruvian, Paracas, 0–A.D. 100)

Wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (21.2557). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Resembling  a heavy-set domestic cat, the pampas cat (felis colocolo) portrayed on this mantle border fragment (0–A.D. 100) feeds primarily on small mammals, insects, snakes and birds that populate the Peruvian coast. Its fur is long and coarse; the hairs along its back form a characteristic dorsal crest. Notice the diamond-shaped ridge and pointed layers of contrasting embroidery yarns that may have been stitched to emphasize the particular markings of this feline. Depicted with a pointy-eared head and long, curling whiskers at either end, this mythical figure carries bodiless human heads. The iconography is repeated in diminutive form along the edge of the fringe.

Though not illustrated on the textile shown here, pampas cat iconography is closely linked with images of cultivated plants – most notably, the lima bean.

As an animal strongly associated in textile imagery with plants and hence the earth, the pampas cat may have been a visual metaphor for the life-giving properties of the earth, functioning as an ideogram of an earth cult when embroidered on garments.
~ Anne Paul, “Paracas Ritual Attire”

Click for description, detail view and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Man’s poncho (Peruvian, Paracas, 100 B.C.-0)

Camelid plain weave, embroidered. Mary Woodman Fund (31.496). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This small poncho, dating to 100 B.C.-0, would have covered the upper torso of its wearer and is executed in linear style embroidery, one of three distinct styles characterizing Paracas textiles (the other two being block color and broad line style). Despite having been made over 2,000 years ago, this textile appears vibrant, brand new, and absolutely intact – its pristine condition given its age is nothing short of astonishing.

Two L-shaped borders along the outer edge and two vertical borders on either side of the neck slit contain squares of varying colors that encase a double-headed bird motif. Nesting within each double-headed bird is an inversion of this figure, within which a third, smaller, upright variant rests in a type of telescopic layering. The bird, reduced to its barest of elements of detail, is further embroidered within the wings of the outer figure, and along the finished edges of the neck slit and fabric edge. Directional orientation of the border compositions run clockwise (outer borders and fabric edge) and counter-clockwise (inner border and neck slit).

My visual observations of this textile led me to wonder about two gaps in the embroidery that appear on either end of the L-shaped borders. This design choice is addressed in a paper by the late Anne Paul, The Multiple Layers of Meaning in a Paracas Necropolis Textile (2000), as part of her analysis of a poncho in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago. (See Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. 827. Pages 210-211). Here, Paul proposes that visual content and style in Paracas textiles shown to be consistent over many years bears intentionality and symbolic importance, and carries forward the illuminating research of Mary Frame, who first suggested that visual elements in early Paracas textiles are the very embodiment of textile structure, drilling down to the direction and movement of plied spun fiber.

Terms that denote the directional twist of fibers are “S” and “Z”: to produce an “S” twist yarn, the fibers are spun in a clockwise direction; to produce a “Z” twist yarn they are spun counter-clockwise. This terminology extends to directional plying as well (two spun fibers twisted together). According to Paul, Paracas Necropolis textiles were typically Z spun, and S plied. If one were to imagine plied spun fibers, one strand would be visible in front, and the other strand hidden behind it. Paul goes on to assert that the ‘breaking points’ of the underlying strands – the points at which the strand goes under, and emerges up from, the overlying strand – are equivalent to the gaps in the poncho borders, signifying two twisting strands. In her conclusion, Paul invites us to imagine the donning of this ritual garment by its wearer:

…when the poncho was pulled over his head, this individual became caught between two twisting strands (the exterior borders) with immaterial circuits moving in opposite directions around his neck (figural orientation in exterior and interior borders).

Click for description, detail view and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Mantle (Peruvian, Paracas, 0–A.D. 100)

Wool plain weave with stem stitch embroidery. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.32). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This Paracas burial mantle has been on view in the MFA’s Ancient South America Gallery (Gallery LG33) since February 2017, and is nearing the end of its scheduled rotation. Visit the MFA soon to view this ritual textile, with its densely-embroidered checkerboard squares that frame standing figures sporting animal-like masks. Each figure is depicted holding a staff topped with a monkey in one hand, and a knife (matching descriptions of the sacrificial “tumi” knife) in the other. A plant-like stem sprouting leaves, and dotted with human trophy heads embroidered along an linear channel, flows from the figure’s mouth in a lyrical arc; evoking the role of sacrificial death in the perpetuation of life.

Click for description, detail views and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Man’s mantle and two border fragments (Peruvian, Paracas, A.D. 50–100)

Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Intricately embroidered with richly dyed colors of thread, this magnificent mantle dating to A.D. 50–100 displays fifty-five “bird impersonator” figures adorning a dark plain weave ground. Several figures within the border were never fully completed. Matching figures on a skirt that belongs with the mantle were also left unfinished, with only their outlines rendered in gold thread, and a solidly embroidered gold border setting off their detailed contours (click here for image). The various stages of needlework on these textiles offer us clues about the sequential creation process.

Click for description, detail views and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Weaving a Beginning

Weaver's basket and implements
Weaver’s basket with implements, Peruvian (Chancay). Gift of Charles H. White (02.680). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In her celebrated book Anni Albers: On Weaving, the artist writes in her Preface:

…Though I am dealing in this book with long-established facts and processes, still, in exploring them, I feel on new ground. And just as it is possible to go from any place to any other, so also, starting from a defined and specialized field, can one arrive at a realization of ever-extending relationships.

Thus tangential subjects come into view. The thoughts, however, can, I believe, be traced to the event of a thread.

Albers’ reflection on what it means for her to write about the ancient subject of weaving has been a useful anchor as I endeavor to launch this project. The inspiration for this blog had its genesis two years ago, when I started a full-time position as Department Coordinator for the Textile and Fashion Arts department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As a visual artist working in fiber, with a special interest in bringing process-related and other meaningful dimensions of textile arts to general audiences, writing a blog seemed a fitting way to respond creatively to my immediate environment. The project would serve to familiarize myself over time with its encyclopedic collections, to share my observations and learning, and to encourage exchanges from a community of interested and informed readers; contributing to the general corpus of knowledge on the subject of cloth.

That moment has arrived, and with great excitement I welcome you to Textiles in Context.

First blog posts (putting a stake in the ground, as a friend put it) can be difficult. This has certainly been my experience; deciding where to begin has been a humbling challenge given the vast array of topics and directions one could choose, with an impressive collection spanning thousands of years and myriad cultures within reach. In my search for a foothold, it was useful to think of a personal association. In so doing, I became reconnected with a formative experience during my nascent development as a fiber artist 26 years ago, when I had the great fortune to see my very first textile related exhibition, To Weave for the Sun: Andean Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To weave for the sun bookcover
Book cover, exhibition catalog by Rebecca Stone-Miller

To Weave for the Sun, on view during the fall of 1992 in the MFA’s Torf Gallery, was a stunning showcase of Andean textiles in the MFA’s holdings, inclusive of Pre-Columbian through Colonial periods. I recall the dimly lit spaces, necessary to protect objects especially vulnerable to light, evoking for me hallowed mysteries and telescopic portals through time. Upon closer examination of the roughly 50 textiles on exhibit, I was mesmerized by the rich variety of iconographies, shapes, colors, geometric patterns, and the meticulous and exacting execution of complicated weaving structures made with the simplest of tools and materials: backstrap, frame and upright looms, combs, needles, spindles and bobbins, and fibers from alpaca, llama, guanaco and vicuña. My renewed exposure to these collections has increased my awareness of their significance. Rebecca Stone-Miller, in her introduction to the exhibition catalog, writes:

Although many artistic media were integral to Andean life and expression, textiles acted as a foundation for the entire aesthetic system to a degree unparalleled in other cultures of the world. Textiles were invented and developed long before other media, played a seminal role in the development of “civilization” itself, and continued their preeminence for thousands of years…The intensive efforts involved in gathering and processing materials, the extensive exploration of techniques, and the overall society was dedicated to fiber.

Numerous textiles, many demonstrating the most complex and virtuosic weaving structures known to this day, as well as intricately executed embroideries covering large areas of finely woven cloth, were miraculously preserved in the arid sands of the Peruvian coastal desert, where they were buried with the dead. Here, they remained undiscovered for close to 2,000 years before landmark archeological excavations were conducted in the early 20th century. 

Peruvian Pacific coastal desert. Textiles were buried here with the dead, where they remained undisturbed for centuries under perfect preservation conditions in the dry sands.

Of the Andean textiles I first encountered in To Weave for the Sun, those from a particular culture stood out for me by merit of their richly detailed, colorful, and highly elaborated symbolic imagery: embroidered textiles from the Paracas peninsula of the Peruvian southern coast. I remember with great clarity the expressive and somewhat hallucinatory images of flying beings, cats, birds, snakes, and anthropomorphic figures (combination human/animal), often holding severed heads (cited in the literature as “trophy heads”); images conjuring worlds within worlds. In next month’s post, I aim to take a closer look at these embroideries and delve deeper into aspects of their brilliant iconographies. Though we cannot be certain of the true meaning of this imagery, the literature about Paracas embroideries presents fascinating interpretations that I look forward to reading more about.

Detail of embroidered mantle, wool plain weave with stem-stitch embroidery, Peruvian (Paracas). Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.33). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Another topic I hope to explore further is a weaving practice known as “discontinuous warp and weft,” a technically challenging technique not used anywhere in the world outside of Peru. Unlike the Paracas embroideries, in which image content is created using a super-structural application (embroidery yarns anchored to a woven cloth foundation), discontinuous warp and weft is an elaborate structure of the woven plane itself. Here, both the warp (vertical yarns under tension) and the weft (horizontal yarns inserted through the vertical) are discontinuous; meaning, they do not travel the full fabric width or length from one end to the other. It is a difficult fabric to produce, necessitating the use of “scaffolding” threads or small sticks, especially in the building of curvilinear shapes. Readable patterns in weaving are more commonly achieved when either the vertical warp threads (warp-faced fabric), or the horizontal weft threads (weft-faced fabric), are dominant. With discontinuous warp and weft, the result is a cloth that demonstrates an equal partnership shared by both warp and weft yarns in the rendering of clearly delineated areas of color and shape. Here also, thoughtful interpretations have been published as to why this method was chosen and its possible significance. I look forward to studying examples of discontinuous warp and weft textiles in our collection to better understand this weave structure.

OOW_2_2018_67.313a-b(detail)
Detail: Upper fragment of a hanging, wool plain weave with discontinuous warps and wefts, Peruvian (Paracas-Nasca transition). Edwin E. Jack Fund (67.313a-b). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Andean textile collection at the MFA, comprising over 350 objects spanning nearly 2,500 years, ranks among the most comprehensive collections of its kind worldwide. I was very interested to learn that surviving Andean textiles to date form the longest continuous textile record in world history, spanning as far back in time as 3,000 B.C. to the present. I return to the words of Anni Albers, who believed her thoughts on weaving “can be traced to the event of a thread.”  For Albers, regarded by many as the paramount textile artist of the 20th century, it comes as no surprise that her seminal book is “Dedicated to my great teachers, the ancient weavers of Peru.”

For me, this is where it starts. I invite you to follow me on Textiles in Context and join me on this quest!


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.