Textiles dominate the pages of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Peruvian inventories, dowries, receipts between merchants, and appraisals. In almost all cases, textiles, silver, and jewelry are assigned the highest prices and given the most detailed written attention in archival documents. Even with the introduction of other art forms, like painting, in the colonial period, textiles maintained a privileged position as luxury goods.
In early eighteenth-century Cusco, where an indigenous aristocracy had grown considerably since the Spanish overthrow of the Inca Empire, middle- and upper-class families owned a vast variety of textiles, either to adorn their bodies or their living spaces. These included an eclectic mix of both locally and internationally produced fabrics: French linen and lace, Spanish woolens, Chinese silks, and camelid woolens, sometimes dyed with cochineal, made from dried and crushed cactus-dwelling insects native to the Americas—among many other products. Despite the rise of imported luxury textiles, certain locally produced fabrics persevered in popularity alongside international products into the late eighteenth century. The most prominent example is cumbi, a Quechua word for a finely woven tapestry cloth made from the highest quality alpaca fibers. Cumbi was a luxury textile in the Inca Empire, where state officials heavily regulated the production, use, and design of cumbi garments and other cumbi textiles.
The presentation of cumbi in colonial archives is particularly significant to our understanding of how the 1532 Spanish Conquest of Peru changed the Inca weaving tradition. Inca weavers and their descendants continued to work into the colonial period, but were put to work on new projects for the Catholic Church and private Spanish patrons. Cumbi appears in notarial documents with a very limited palette: de colores (colored), blanco or negro (white or black), entre blanco y negro (a mix of the two), or musco (dark brownish-gray), indicating that it was continuing to be largely produced with natural dyes and fibers.
Archival documents also provide illuminating clues as to the colonial uses of cumbi. While garments were the most important woven items for the Inca, new categories of textiles emerged in Peru in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Influenced by Spanish tastes, cumbi tapestries became a popular textile format, and were displayed prominently in homes and churches. Colonial weavers also used their skills for the production of cumbi bedcovers, table covers, rugs, wall hangings, and other pieces to meet colonial needs. Smaller cumbis were also likely used as furniture upholstery. Much smaller than a wall hanging or table cloth, these pieces once stumped scholars who believed they were ñañacas (head cloths), made up of a piece of cumbi folded over a stiff board. All share two main characteristics: they are rectangular and have a row of holes along one edge, usually with embroidery to reinforce the edges. These tapestry-woven panels were likely fastened to chair backs used in the sala de estrado, the semi-public space for entertaining guests in the Spanish colonial home.
Larger cumbi tapestries were also repurposed as upholstery for colonial furniture, such as the nineteenth-century couch in the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa.
This eighteenth-century cumbi tapestry was once likely a rug, bedspread, or table cover.
Murra, John. “Cloth and Its Function in the Inca State.” American Anthropologist 64.4 (1962): 710-728.
Phipps, Elena. “Cumbi to Tapestry: Collection, Innovation, and Transformation of the Colonial Andean Tapestry Tradition.” In The Colonial Andes Tapestry and Silverwork, 1530-1830, edited by Phipps, Johanna Hecht, and Cristina Esteras Martín, 72-99. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004.
Stanfield-Mazzi, Maya. “Weaving and Tailoring the Andean Church: Textile Ornaments and Their Makers in Colonial Peru.” The Americas: A Quarterly Review of Latin American History 72:1 (2015): 77-102.