Mantle fragment (Peruvian, Paracas, A.D. 100–200)

Mantle fragment. Wool plain-weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (21.2556). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The nine colors embroidered on this burial mantle fragment, dated A.D. 100–200, reveal the sophisticated methods developed by Paracas textile artists for dyeing camelid and cotton fibers to produce a wide range of color choices.

Cora E. Stafford, in her 1941 book Paracas Embroideries: A Study of Repeated Patterns, cites early research on Paracas color by Lila Morris O’Neale, an American anthropologist and textile historian who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931 for her study on ancient Peruvian textiles:

…Dr. O’Neale, who has made a careful study  of the range of colors in Paracas textiles…finds 190 differences of dyed color, measured on the charts in Maertz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. Setting aside the fact, of which Dr. O’Neale is aware, that some color differences may be the result of fading or other chemical changes that have taken place since the textiles were made, the Paracas woman had at her disposal a large number of colors.”

The textile featured here, executed in the well-studied “color block” style, manifests a visual language that is difficult to interpret, but has been shown to display intentional systems of logic and organization through the use of both color and figural symmetries of motion (See blog post, A Hidden Order). Speaking to these stylistic elements, Stafford goes on to say:

From the aesthetic point of view, the number of colors used in a given textile is less important than how successfully they are employed to develop pattern through the interplay of repetition and contrast. With a large number of different colors at hand, it is not surprising that the Paracas embroiderer depended upon this element for her most complicated and beautiful aesthetic effects, and it is chiefly through her manipulation of color that we trace those intricate thought-processes that made possible the significant handling of so many colors.”

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Objects in Brief is a randomized showcase of the MFA, Boston’s encyclopedic Textile and Fashion Arts collections. A featured object is indicative of the author’s curiosity and chosen so she may learn about its material and structural properties, function, history, and greater story. These “quick studies” have led to more in-depth explorations posted in A Closer Look.

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