ES.272 | Spring 2003 | Undergraduate
Culture Tech

Andean Textiles


This mini-module is about two aspects of culture rarely discussed together, but with a plethora of interesting interactions: clothing and communication. Cloth and fabric arts were at the foundation of almost every aspect of Incan culture: art and the economy, societal structure, and in a culture without a “written language,” it was the medium for records and communication. The goal of the quipu module is to investigate the many roles cloth had in Incan culture, and ultimately to focus on the quipu, a technology at once personally creative and bureaucratically advanced. How is the significance of cloth reflected on Incan culture, and do the different structures within the Incan society reinforce each other to make this technology appropriate and natural?


13 Peruvian textiles and culture

de la Vega, Garcilaso. “The Foundation of Cuzco, the imperial city.” Chapter XVI in Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1966.

Malpass, Michael A. “Politics and Society.” Chapter 2 in Daily Life in the Inca Empire. 1st ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996. ISBN: 9780313293900.

14 Quipus Ascher, Marcia, and Robert Ascher. “How to Make a Quipu,” “The Quipumaker,” and “A Piece of String.” Chapter 2, 4, and 8 in Code of the Quipu: A Study in Media, Mathematics, and Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1981. ISBN: 9780472063253. (PDF)
15 Peruvian textile techniques

Feltham, Jane. “Materials and Tools,” and “Techniques.” In Peruvian Textiles. Aylesbury, England: Shire Publications, 1989, pp. 16-19, 22-23, 26-27, 30-35 and 38-41. ISBN: 9780747800149.

Cobo, Bernabe. “Of the dress and garments of these Indians,” and “Of the Clothing and Cloth that they used to Spin and Weave.” Chapters 2 and 11 in Inca Religion and Customs. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 185–189 and 223-226. ISBN: 9780292738614.

16 Textiles and their functions Murra, John V. “Cloth and Its Functions in the Inca State.” American Anthropologist 64 (August 1962): 710-728.  


There are two labs for the quipu module, and we try to do them both if we have time.

The Quipu

This is a lab in communication. We give the students a variety of short documents, from Aesop fables to receipts. The goal is to make a quipu, using a variety of dyed yarns, to encode the documents. One way to do this is for each student to simply make the quipu, and then explain it to the class. Another way is for the one student to write down an “encoding scheme” — a set of rules for translating between information and yarn — then to pass the document and scheme to another student who makes the quipu, and then passes the quipu and scheme to a third student who tries to decode it.

The Backstrap Loom

Backstrap looms are quick to make and easy to use almost anywhere. Using a 2x4 with nails for looping the cords, we create a backstrap loom for each student before class. During class, we show students how to strap themselves in, and how to make different patterns by raising threads of the warp as they pass the weft back and forth.

Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2003