Las tejedoras aymara, herederas de una tradición milenaria

Aymara weavers, heirs of an ancient tradition

How can we not admire aguayos , those large blankets of soft, finely woven wool, sometimes in bright colors, sometimes in natural tones? These handmade pieces are undoubtedly a beautiful decorative object and at the same time they are bearers of an ancient tradition, which has been transmitted by generations of weavers from the Atacama Desert.

Textile art is probably what is most identified with the Aymara, an indigenous people who have traditionally resided in the north of Chile, in the regions of Arica and Parinacota and Tarapacá. Traditionally, Aymara farmers inhabited the fertile ravines and pre-mountain valleys of the intermediate depression, while the highlands of the altiplano or puna, at more than 4,000 meters high, were occupied by llama and alpaca herders. The rich Aymara textile tradition dates back to pre-Columbian times and reflects a long history of adaptation and Andean influences.

Small historical sketch of the Aymara

Historically, the Aymara descend from different ethnic groups that were first under the influence of the Tiwanaku State starting in the 4th century AD and that later formed independent lordships that fell under the domination of the Inka Empire five centuries later. After the Spanish conquest, the Aymara social and economic structure underwent great transformations. After the Pacific War, the current regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá and Antofagasta were annexed to the young Republic of Chile, which sought to instill national identity and civic culture in indigenous groups, ignoring cultural traditions of these peoples.
Since the 1970s, migrations of the Aymara – mainly from farming communities – to the urban centers of Arica and Iquique have intensified. The high-altitude livestock communities, for their part, remained in the highlands or occupied the spaces that had been abandoned in the lowlands. Despite having settled in the cities, many Aymaras continue to be linked to their places of origin through activities linked to agriculture and return to their hometowns to participate in traditional customs and celebrations, such as the patron saint festivals, the Carnival or the cattle flourish in which Pachamama or Mother Earth is thanked for the animals and asked to protect them and reproduce.
Unlike the agricultural communities, which were more exposed to foreign influences, the shepherds of the highlands managed to maintain their traditions and customs with greater force, which is reflected to this day in the maintenance of the language: while in the In the highlands, the use of the Aymara language predominates, in the valleys and in the cities Spanish is mostly spoken. It is also these livestock communities that have guarded the textile tradition to this day.

The textile tradition

Aymara fabrics stand out for their fineness and the use of strong colors such as fuchsia, green, yellow, red, blue and light blue, which are combined with natural tones, such as white, brown, gray and the black. In the past, the exchange of fabrics for agricultural products from the valleys and ravines was common.

Textiles traditionally had utilitarian and ceremonial purposes. Before the Spanish conquest, men and women wore camelid wool shirts that they tied at the waist with a wool sash. Today, traditional clothing has fallen into disuse and is only worn on the occasion of festivals and ritual activities: the woman wears an aksu , a black or dark brown woolen cloth made up of two joined pieces, which reaches below the knees. In the past it was held with tupus or silver pins. A colorful waka or woven sash is worn at the waist. A rectangular blanket of fine fabric and various colors called llijlla or aguayo is tied to the shoulders, which was traditionally used by women to carry small children on their backs, as well as merchandise during trips. Men currently no longer wear traditional clothing, although at festivals they wear a lljlla tied over their suit and ponchos. Especially the alférez -men who assume the organization and financing of the celebrations- wear a fine alpaca wool poncho.

The most elaborate and fine pieces, for their part, were reserved for ceremonial purposes, such as the chuspas or small bags that are hung around the neck to store coca leaves and the small tablecloths for ritual use called inkuña .

The art of knitting

Aymara women learned from a young age the craft of spinning, twisting and weaving wool, inherited from generation to generation. By adolescence, they already mastered the main textile and embroidery techniques, in order to reinforce and adorn the garments.

Each textile piece reflects a long process, which begins with the grazing of animals in the wetlands and highlands of the plateau. After shearing, the women select the llama or alpaca wool - to which the sheep were added - according to its type, color and quality, which they then spin with a small wooden spindle, an activity that they often carry out while caring for their animals. . Two types of looms are used for weaving. The smallest one dates back to pre-Hispanic times: it is a backstrap loom and is used for making small, elaborate garments, such as sashes. The largest, introduced after the Spanish conquest, is fixed to the ground by four stakes. To compress the wool on the large loom, the vichuña is used, a small bone tool, similar to an awl, with a pointed end. Once the piece is completed, the details are sewn or embroidered.

Each fabric reflects the rich Andean worldview, in which different influences were interwoven over the centuries, the strongest being that of the Tiawanaku and Inka empires. The way of combining lines and colors reflects a complex visual language that the weaver transmits in each of her pieces.

*This is the first in a series of articles and research dedicated to traditional crafts, the work of our great collaborator Christine Gleisner @christine_gv Welcome!

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