The recent ATA TextileTalk on “The Andean Textile Tradition of Four-Selvaged Cloth” by Elena Phipps, PhD, highlights one of the amazing technical features of Andean woven textiles, something that casual textile lovers who are not weavers themselves often overlook. Many of the finest traditional Andean textiles are woven to completion on all four edges, producing a finished textile which has no cut edges—it is simply untied from the loom. Weavers in the Andean highlands have been creating beautiful, uncut, four-selvage textiles for thousands of years. Such uncut textiles have a deep connection to the worldview and spirituality of Andean and other indigenous cultures of the Americas. This amazing weaving technique, virtually unknown in cultures beyond the Americas, is possible with traditional Andean looms such as the backstrap loom. (Europeans, with their floor looms, never attempt this.)
Four-selvage weaving is accomplished by careful attention to detail and with great skill throughout the weaving process. First the warp is carefully planned and prepared so that the finished textile will have the correct desired dimensions for the desired article. The warp is cleverly tied to the loom bars in such a way that the weaving can begin with the first weft threads neatly packed to the extreme end of the warp. After the textile is partially woven from one end of the warp, the loom is turned around, the shed rod moved to the other side of the heddles, and the weaving process continued from the other end of the warp.
But the feat is not complete yet! As the weaving from the far end of the warp approaches the place where the first weaving was left off, the work becomes progressively more difficult as the room to open the sheds, pick the patterns, and pass the wefts becomes more and more restricted. Smaller and smaller tools are used to continue weaving until finally the heddles must be removed and the last sheds created and wefts passed with a needle. Often such work, even done by master weavers, leaves telltale interruptions in the overall pattern, which are subtle hints of the process employed. These irregularities, far from being considered “flaws,” are marks of the value the weaver poured into the weaving. However, occasionally one finds a textile so skillfully planned and executed that the place where the weaving was completed is difficult to discern even by an expert eye.
As challenging as this process is, it is only the foundation for further textile artistry that builds upon it. Techniques of discontinuous warp and weft, called ticlla in the Quechua language and scaffold weaving by many of the rest of us, were practiced by pre-Columbian cultures such as the Nasca and Wari. Employing a mosaic of regions of four-selvage weaving supported and interlinked by scaffold rods and threads, these techniques have been preserved and proudly revived in the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) weaving community of Pitumarca in Peru. And in collaboration with the neighboring Sallac community, who are experts at ikat and tye-dying techniques, these fine weavers are today pursuing the creation of even more amazing textiles—textiles that are carefully scaffold-woven, tye-dyed, disassembled (not cut!) and reassembled into exquisite kaleidoscopic recreations of some of the finest archaeological relics of these ancient indigenous cultures.
I am only a novice backstrap weaver, with four years of exploration of this art form under my belt. I only hope to one day weave my first true four-selvage textile, and my halting progress towards that goal only heightens my admiration for my Andean friends who are the true masters of the art.
Lead photo: Pitumarca weavers–Señoras Aquelina, Lucía, Damiana, Virginia, and Maria–with large brown and white scaffold woven piece.
Bob Miller is a retired engineer, backstrap weaver, and enthusiastic supporter of the cultures and weaving traditions of Peru and Guatemala. He and his wife Jean first fell in love with the Peruvian Andes and its people on the 2018 ATA tour.