Scaffold weave is one of the most unusual weaving techniques in the world and existed only in the Andean region of South America. The complexity of the woven textiles in this ancient world is still fascinating scholars, weavers and textile lovers today. Current day weavers in the Peruvian Highlands, particularly Pitumarca, still practice this ancient art. Why is it that complex textiles were so highly valued? In the Andes, the essence of the object was what was inside not on the surface. Both in metal and cloth, the ideal was held inside, making the structure more important that the surface decoration. And so the complexity of cloth makes perfect sense from a cultural perspective.
It’s Ancient History
Inca royalty clothed in the finest vicuna fiber may be the image most have of ancient Peru, as the Spanish recorded when they arrived in 1532. But the history of Andean culture extends back through eons of time. Recent discoveries at Huaca Prieta on the north coast of Peru brought to light 7,800 year-old cotton fragments dyed with indigo – the earliest known use of indigo in the world. It is hard for us to imagine the symbolic power embedded in these cultural icons that carried profound messages concerning the order and nature of the universe. Scaffold weave textiles were used in rituals and most often found in burial sites on the southern coast of Peru.
Culture and Cosmology
Scaffold weave textiles were part of a woven complex in a culture that valued textiles more highly than gold. Textiles were the primary means of artistic expression and communication that developed over millennia. Complexity and duality, balance and reciprocity shaped the cosmology of a people who faced severe environmental challenges – in the Atacama desert, driest in the world; the Andes mountains, second only to the Himalayas in height; and the Amazon jungle. In this difficult landscape, survival, especially above the tree line, required helping each other and supporting the entire community. The unpredictability of life required a constant give and take between humans and the environment. And in their textiles, the principles of life could be expressed and communicated. This communication continues today.
Scaffold Weave By Any Other Name
This technique is also known as discontinuous warp and weft (DWW), which describes the process. If you are familiar with tapestry, then you know that weaving only part way across the surface of a fabric to create images and designs uses discontinuous weft technique. Although scaffold weave looks similar in design to tapestry, it is a plain weave structure. And plain weave exhibits order and balance and was a conceptual metaphor for cosmic order in the Ancient Andes and many other ancient cultures.
If you want to give this technique a try, it is good to know that there is more than one way to create this structure depending on how one builds the scaffolding. The easiest way to decipher this complex structure is through images. The contemporary Peruvian weavers are interlocking the various colors to create the design. To create the pieces for tie-dye, weaving shapes were not joined, so that the pieces could be separated later.
Ancient scaffold weave may have been the first tie-dye cloth.
Judy’s Favorite Reads
Art of the Andes, 2002 by Rebecca Stone-Miller is a great way to immerse oneself in Andean culture.
Andean Textile Traditions: Papers from the 2001 Mayer Center Symposium at the Denver Art Museum, 2006, Young-Sanchez and Simpson, eds. This publication contains Jane W. Rehl’s chapter on scaffold weave, which is condensed from her PhD dissertation and contains excellent cultural and technical information.
To Weave for the Sun: Ancient Andean Textiles, 1992. Rebecca Stone-Miller’s volume on the Andean textile collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a beautifully created research catalogue.