Tale of A Royal Inca Tunic

I was originally interested in Dr. Andrew James Hamilton’s Andean Textile Talk about an Inca tunic because of my love of Andean textiles in general, but also because one my favorite possessions is a textile that I bought at an ATA auction fundraiser. It’s easy to see the visual connection between the two pieces.

The author’s textile

During his presentation, Dr. Hamilton introduced us to the very special tunic by explaining its uniqueness as the only surviving royal Inca tunic. Through documentation from the colonial period, he showed that the tunic’s design was originally used exclusively by Inca royalty. Since the Inca rulers never wore the same garment twice and when they died the garments were burned, it’s not surprising that no other royal Inca tunics have yet been found. The royal weavers would have woven the special textile in tapestry style on a frame-type loom and not the typical Andean backstrap loom. It would then have been given to the Inca ruler, who might have worn it himself or perhaps given it to another noble or even to his royal guards.

The quality of the tunic is another indicator of the role it might have played in Inca history. To fix the date when this might have been woven, Dr Hamilton pointed out that it was woven with very fine yarn and had between 250-275 ends per inch. Thread counts went down after the Spanish invasion, so he concluded that this textile, with such a high thread count, was probably woven at about the time of the conquest. It might have been made for Atahualpa, the son of Huayana Capac, who was killed by the Spanish in Cajamarca in 1532. Or perhaps it was owned by Manco Inca who was a puppet ruler under Pizarro. It might have been sold or bequeathed by a later descendent, such as Sapa Inca, or pillaged by the conquistadores as the spoils of war. But he admitted that he didn’t know for sure if it was originally made for an Inca royal—or was a copy that was made later.

Inca Roca by Martin de Muria, c. 1616

Dr. Hamilton showed that it obviously had been well worn and was repaired in several places. The repairs were rough and probably done by several different indigenous weavers who were not trained Inca weavers. It was very interesting to lean how he analyzed these repairs. If it indeed had been used by an Inca royal in the first part of its life, it probably was later owned and used by a non-royal.

Frustratingly, there are some big gaps in what is known about the history of the tunic. We may never know exactly its journey from creation, possibly during the time of the last Inca rulers, until it found its way to the collection of Robert Woods Bliss and the collection at Dumbarton Oaks Museum.

Dr. Hamilton’s analysis of the tunic was fascinating. I’ve only written about my favorite high points. But he left me wanting to know more about the significance of some of the small designs—especially those that also appear on my textile.  Hopefully this will be explained when Dr. Hamilton’s second book is released in May. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy, and if the designs are explained, I’ll be able to write a Part II for this blog on the royal Inca tunic and its descendent hanging in my living room.

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