Woven textiles have been a feature of Bolivian life and culture for thousands of years, the oldest examples possibly pre-dating pottery finds. Although utilitarian in origin, they are one of the key distinguishing features of the various indigenous cultures that still exist today.
As well as making the drabbest backstreet look lively and vibrant, the colourful textiles worn and used by Bolivia's indigenous peoples play a significant part in the country's culture and economy. Few tourists leave the country without at least a few small samples; many stuff their suitcases and backpacks with larger souvenirs of their stay, perhaps not fully understanding that their purchases represent far more than a few holiday souvenirs.
For serious dealers and collectors, textiles are immensely valuable as investments, and although items may have been designed originally to fulfil a strictly practical purpose, they have increasing significance as works of art and as pieces of cultural history.
The Pre-Colonial Era
Historically, the richest, most detailed and creative examples belonged to the most highranking individuals in the community. For example, woven containers for carrying coca leaves were the privileged possessions of Inca aristocracy, including shamans or priests. These ‘chuspas’ would feature familiar aspects of life such as the condor or llama, often highly stylised. Coins stitched to the bags would demonstrate their value to the owners. The clothing of such individuals would be made by the most skilled weavers using the finest raw materials.
In the Tarabuco region beautiful square bags worked in black and white with coloured borders were used to contain offerings to the dead, often foods for eternity, to accompany them on their journey to another life. Stylised representations of human figures, landscapes, flora and fauna were used to symbolise the earthly life the dead were leaving behind, varying according to the characteristics of the region in which they were produced.
Other objects were the exclusive property of shamans and priests to use in their religious practices and rituals such as inhalers for hallucinogens or tobacco and bags or pouches to hold them. Containers known as ‘capachos’ were specially designed to hold herbal medicines and other natural remedies. Precious amulets were also carefully protected in special bags.
Woven items were not however restricted to the ceremonial or luxurious. A dizzying array of items were also used for storage, transport and commerce.
The impact of the Colonial era
Many of these objects and styles are still in evidence in modern Bolivia, used every day by indigenous peoples and available to buy in tourist shops. However, the colonial era has left its mark unmistakably on the culture, especially in the forms of dress imposed upon conquered tribes.
An obvious example is the headgear worn by the Tarabucan male: at first glance a felt bonnet, it is in fact a representation of the metal helmets worn by conquistadors. The distinctive multi-layered skirts of modern Aymaran ‘cholitas’ also date back to the colonial era, when indigenous peoples were obliged to dress in 18th century Spanish styles
The evolution of raw materials
Throughout history, a wide variety of materials has been used, depending on regionally available resources. The earliest woven textiles use wool from the llama, alpaca or vicuña, animals native to the west and south of Bolivia. Llama wool is the thickest and coarsest of the three and is therefore used for rugs, ‘aguayos’ or carrying cloths, bags and belts. Alpaca is finer, especially baby alpaca, and widely available still in shops and artisan markets. The vicuña however is an endangered species and its fleece is the most expensive fibre in the world. There are no authentic examples generally available; would-be purchasers need to contact specialist weavers or merchants and the legal cost of a vicuña shawl is likely to be around U$800.
Later, sheep were introduced from North America and provided a cheaper and more plentiful source of wool, merino being the finest. Cheaper contemporary textiles are made using acrylic yarn, pre-dyed and ready for use.
In pre-colonial and colonial eras vegetable and other natural dyes were used: carrot tops, eucalyptus leaves, various seed pods and types of bush. Walnut leaves creates warm earth tones; cochineal, derived from a species of spider found living in cactus plants, gives the various shades of red, burgundy, purple and orange. These colours could also be subtly altered by the type of pot used to produce the dyes. Later on, chemical dyes were used which made life easier for the weavers.
Traditional techniques and processes are complex and time-consuming. Before the actual weaving could begin, yarn needed to be collected, washed, dried, prepared for spinning, spun and dyed. One researcher calculated that a small poncho represented 280 hours of weaving time, so that weavers might therefore produce only one piece a year.
Each of the five broad textile-producing areas (La Paz, Oruro, Potosi, Cochabamba and Sucre) is now divided into departments and each department into communities. While each area has its own distinctive style, local variations are also evident, as well as individual touches from the creative imagination and skill of the single weaver.
In La Paz for example, there is a preference for symmetrical designs with a central highly detailed panel. Oruro tends to favour side designs with a plain centre. In Potosi, the design often covers one half of the cloth only while the other is left plain black.
How to distinguish good from bad, old from new
What determines the commercial value of a piece is firstly its age, secondly the value of the materials used in its manufacture and thirdly the quality and detail of its craftsmanship.
This much is common sense and in any case value is often determined by the personal tastes of the purchaser. Hand-woven textiles are clearly more valuable than those which are mass-produced. Older pieces tend to have more natural colours and finer detail; often they were woven with love by a woman for her man, an advantage not shared by machine-produced goods. Established dealers are generally more reliable than market stalls but prices may be less negotiable.
The morality of buying textile souvenirs
Bolivian textiles are now hugely collectable items, raising complex questions about the morality of collectors and casual visitors buying and removing artefacts which represent a unique part of the country's history and culture.
Instead of being exhibited for the education and enjoyment of visitors and as a source of national pride for native Bolivians, many valuable textiles are disappearing into private collections and homes abroad. This also applies to archaeological as well as ethnological items. Because the United States is a major destination, successive Bolivian governments have attempted to impose restrictions on materials being exported.
In 1961 Bolivia outlawed the export of antique weavings. Even so, in 1989, emergency action had to be taken to protect Aymara textiles from being exported in violation of these laws. Despite the prosecution and lengthy imprisonment of Bolivian middlemen, the problem has not disappeared. On 9th December 1992 the Wall Street Journal reported a rare instance of forty-eight Aymara textiles being recovered from a San Francisco dealer and returned to the then President Zamora by the US Treasury Secretary at the Bolivian Embassy in Washington. In 2001, the US and Bolivia signed a Memorandum of Understanding to limit illegal transfers of ownership of cultural property. Irreplaceable artefacts and materials with a vital role in ceremonial and ritual practices were being systematically plundered from indigenous communities simply to feed foreigners' demands for collectable items.
A different threat to the traditional production of textiles is the steep decline in the numbers of those involved in weaving following the introduction of cheaper mass-produced goods and factory-produced materials. Weaving has traditionally been the work of women, using waist and floor looms, whereas men were in charge of producing ropes, cord and slings. Today it is estimated that only 10% of women are occupied in weaving as opposed to 100% before the 20th century.
A number of projects and cooperatives has been established in Bolivia to encourage the production of high quality artefacts using traditional techniques and styles. One of these is the Jalq'a and Tarabuco Textile Programme in Sucre which aims to generate employment and income, revitalise cultural creativity and add to public understanding of the place of textiles in native Bolivian culture.
There is also a keen interest in developing textiles as art. A recent exhibition in La Paz, ‘Tejiendo Arte’ (The Art of Weaving) at the Museo de Etnografía y Folklore, showed the work of artists from all over South America working with a wide range of fibres and other materials and mixing a wide range of traditional and innovative techniques. As well as being stimulating and imaginative in their own right, the works paid homage to the cultural traditions from which they had sprung, incorporating familiar symbols and motifs, but pointing the way to a new direction for the future, in which collectors might be encouraged to turn their attention to the work of living artists, rather than plundering the heritage of the past.