Mantle (Peruvian, Wari, A.D. 700-900)

Mantle, (Peruvian, Wari, Middle Horizon period, A.D. 700-900). Wool [camelid] plain weave with discontinuous warps and wefts, disassembled, tie-dyed, and reassembled. Textile Fund and Helen and Alice Colburn Fund (1983.252). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
This lively and technically-virtuosic Peruvian mantle is currently on view in conjunction with the MFA, Boston’s contemporary installation, Cecilia Vicuña: Disappeared Quipu. The mantle, along with other garments that Chilean artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña selected from renowned collections of ancient Andean textiles (MFA, Boston and Brooklyn Museum), assumes a parallel life in a 4-channel video projection that spills over a central configuration of hanging knotted wool—monumental quipu evoking the recording device used by Inkan culture and made with plied and knotted cords. Three of the MFA’s prized Andean textiles rest at the gallery’s periphery, along with five ancient quipu from the Peabody Museum at Harvard—transforming the nature of time and space in a collapse of past and present, as Vicuña creates an immersive environment in which to memorialize and remember.

Mantle, detail view, (Peruvian, Wari, Middle Horizon period, A.D. 700-900). Wool [camelid] plain weave with discontinuous warps and wefts, disassembled, tie-dyed, and reassembled. Textile Fund and Helen and Alice Colburn Fund (1983.252). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The physical presence of this mantle from Peruvian Wari culture, in conversation with the central copse of monumental quipu assembled by Vicuña, bridging thousands of years from the ancient past to the present moment, has been exhilarating for me. The first and last time I had a chance to view this textile was in 1992, when it was showcased in the exhibit To Weave for the Sun: Andean Textiles in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The elaborate method of its woven construction affirms the preeminent value placed on textile production in Andean culture, for which extensive labor and technical achievement were among the primary measures. The interlocking stepped triangles shown in the detail images above and below were individually woven using discontinuous warp and weft, a technically-demanding technique for weaving irregular shapes. The triangles were temporarily connected to each other in strips using scaffolding threads. After the strips were resist-dyed, each in a particular color, the individual triangles were disassembled, and reassembled, in a new configuration.

Mantle, detail view, (Peruvian, Wari, Middle Horizon period, A.D. 700-900). Wool [camelid] plain weave with discontinuous warps and wefts, disassembled, tie-dyed, and reassembled. Textile Fund and Helen and Alice Colburn Fund (1983.252). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Rebecca Stone Miller, author of the catalog accompanying the 1992 exhibit To Weave for the Sun, writes:

The term “patchwork” does not do justice to the intricacy of the creative process. To my knowledge, the process used here is unique in world fiber history…A technical discovery of this kind underscores how important it was to the ancient Andeans not to cut fabric, how much labor was expended to obtain a particular visual effect, and how central innovation was to the aesthetic system.”

Click for description and collections data on mfa.org


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.

2 thoughts on “Mantle (Peruvian, Wari, A.D. 700-900)

  1. How can you tell that the pieces were disassembled, dyed, and then reassembled? Is it the discontinuous weft & warp? It seems like an unnecessarily laborious technique. Why did they avoid cutting? I seems to me that more thread is wasted by weaving individual pieces than would have been if pieces were cut from whole cloth. I ask because sometimes researchers are so intent on finding a new discover that they can’t see the forest for the trees. Also, art historians can’t be knowledgeable in every craft. Sometimes they are not expert in a particular technique. Has this technique been tested with modern day weavers? For the sake of science, you do have to be able to duplicate it.

    1. Thanks for your comment on my post featuring the MFA’s tie-dyed Wari mantle. You hit the mark with questions concerning the choice of technically difficult and labor-intensive techniques used to create this masterwork, and whether this method has been replicated by contemporary weavers. We know how this tunic was fabricated through close readings of its physical structure by textile experts (textile conservators among them) and their analyses of the sequential steps that went towards the completion of the overall textile, including the weaving, dying and reassembling of the component parts to create its visually stunning patterning. Regarding the issue of labor, we learn by studying ancient Andean textiles that this very investment in the preparation of materials and expenditure of effort, not to mention the unparalled diversity and virtuosity of weaving techniques, how foundational textiles were as the preeminent form of cultural and aesthetic expression. The primacy of textiles in Andean culture is at the heart of the technical and innovative brilliance of its weave structures, unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. To cut cloth after such an expenditure of effort would likely have been an unthinkable concept, and would run counter to this notion of value placed on textile as structure. Modern day fiber artists have long been inspired and influenced by Andean weaving, such as Anni Albers, Sheila Hicks, Lenore Tawney, Ed Rossbach, and others who sought to push the medium of fiber to new dimensions. Just a few years ago, a workshop was held as part of the Textile Society of America’s 2016 conference in the technique of discontinuous warp and weft. Thank you for your great questions!

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