One of the many amazing experiences my anthropological fieldwork gave me was to learn to weave using ancient Mayan backstrap techniques.
Re-Creating a Nasca Textile
I was accepted into the Presidential Scholars Program in the fall semester of 2004, with Dr. Bethany Usher from the Potsdam Anthropology Department as my project adviser. My project involved experimental archeology: I attempted to duplicate an ancient textile artifact in order to learn more about the processes of its creation. I recreated a large cross-knit looped fringed neckline border from the Early Intermediate Period of the Nasca culture of southern Peru, A.D. 100-300, housed in the collection of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, Canada. Re-creating an ancient textile forges an intimate bond between the modern researcher and artisans in the forgotten past. It requires assiduous academic detective work and a leap of the imagination to produce an educated guess in tactile form. Most of what we know about the textile techniques of preliterate Andean cultures has come from experimental reconstruction work by researchers such as Lila M. O’Neale and Raoul d’Harcourt.My project was not actually an archaeological experiment, because I was not controlling the variables to test a specific idea, but I was informed by the techniques of experimental archaeology, and the experience of reproducing an ancient artifact was a great foundation for me in my study of textiles.
Nasca culture flowered in the Early Intermediate Period of southern Peru, from about 1 A.D. to 700 A.D., but most visible traces of their culture had vanished by the time the Spanish conquered the Inca in 1532, according to Helaine Silverman and Donald Proulx in their book, The Nasca. Although our understanding of the Nasca culture has increased with a recent change in research focus from the stylistic changes in their artifacts to their society, their civilization is still a mystery to us. Much of what we know about how they lived derives from the remains they left behind, as well as a certain amount of ethnoarchaeological analogy.
The Río Grande de Nazca drainage basin where the Nasca lived is described as a “sub-tropical desiccated desert,” and at first glance it does not appear to be particularly hospitable to human life (Silverman and Proux 43). However, the Nasca seem to have made the most of their environment, transforming the desert into a verdant, productive agricultural economy. Like the Egyptians, they took advantage of annual floods, and grew maize, manioc, achira, lima beans, guava, lúcuma, and jíquima. They were able to move beyond strict subsistence, producing items with aesthetic as well as functional qualities; they might even have had a specialized ceramic-making artisan class.
Nasca artistic expression, like that of other PreColumbian cultures, was initially attributed to the Inca. With further study it became clear that their work represented a unique and fascinating society. The aspect of Nasca expression that has received the most popular and subsequent scholarly attention is the pattern of mysterious geoglyphs that they created across their arid landscape. These environmental artworks have been the subject of many theories, both plausible and wildly improbable. The Nasca geoglyphs were created quite simply, by removing the dark stones that covered the ground, exposing the lighter soil underneath. Theorists have proposed that the lines were connected to water resources, that they represented the celestial calendar, that they were formed by ritual paths, or that they served as memory aids. Some have wildly proposed that extraterrestrials created the lines as markers or landing strips. Their main argument is that the “primitive” Nasca could not possibly have created the geoglyphs, because they cannot be seen from the ground. Others have posited that the Nasca must have had hot air balloon technology that allowed them to view the lines in progress. Researchers have answered their criticisms by noting that the Nasca regularly used grids to create their complex weavings, and that this technique could easily have been applied to the creation of the geoglyphs.
I first saw the Nasca textile in the Textile Museum of Canada’s online exhibit “Cloth and Clay: Communicating Culture.” It consists of a narrow geometrically patterned band with square tabs attached above and below it. The stylized human faces are probably symbolic severed heads, while the upper tabs probably represent beans.
According to the material culture the Nasca left behind, trophy heads or severed heads were very significant in their culture. Headhunting was an important feature of Nasca life. Their artistic expressions often featured trophy heads, to the extent that researchers can identify Nasca work based on depictions of their characteristic style of treating the severed head. According to Alan R. Sawyer, the trophy head cult originated some time before 200 B.C.E “in the jungle-shrouded valleys of Amazon tributaries that cut deep into Peru’s southern highlands.” After it was introduced to the Nasca, it became extremely popular, superseding the original Nasca religion. “The Nasca and Necropolis cultures evidently regarded the head as the residence of human vitality since, when it was injured, the body could not function. The trophy head was therefore believed to retain life force” (47). High-status people often wore textiles representing severed heads or even real severed heads around their waists. Nasca trophy heads had the hole in the foramen magnum widened to permit the brain to pass through, and a small hole in the frontal bone for the convenient carrying cord. The lips of the heads were sealed with cactus spines and the jaws were lashed together, and the apertures for the eyes and cheeks were stuffed with cotton.
I visited the Textile Museum of Canada in June, 2005 to view the textile up close. The assistant curator, Roxane Shaughnessy, had laid the textile out for me to examine visually: it is too delicate to handle except for conservation. It was a very exciting experience for me to be able to look at a nearly two thousand year old textile up close, without glass or any protective material covering it. As I took notes about the textile, I couldn’t help but feel awed by its sheer age and the skill used to construct it.
The provenance of the textile artifact is a bit of a mystery. Given its state of preservation, it was probably buried in a sand dune grave along with other grave goods. Textiles only preserve in unusually waterlogged, arid, or cold environments that protect them from decomposition. In 1889, William H. Holmes wrote: “The ancient inhabitants of Peru, as is customary with many peoples of corresponding grades of culture, buried a multitude of useful and valued objects along with the dead, and it happened that the dry sands in which the tombs were excavated, preserved, through a process of desiccation, not only the bodies but most of the fragile articles and delicate fabrics that accompanied them” (5). After it was recovered from the burial, either legally or by looters, the edging was probably sold in a textile auction. Although it originally edged a sleeve or neckline, it was found sewn to the center of a larger dark-blue cloth, which is commonly done to increase the value of auction items.
The textile is made from handspun two-ply alpaca yarn, so I visited a local alpaca farm, Angel Knoll Alpacas, in order to get some alpaca fleece. Angel Dunkelberg generously gave me two full fleeces and a number of smaller bags of alpaca fleece, requesting only that I make something in return for the Angel Knoll gift shop. I decided to make a shawl for her, but that’s another story.
In South America, alpaca are sheared in the spring. Rather than carding the wool, women draw the fibers out into a roving by hand. They often wind the roving around a forked wooden distaff or their lower arms. Mary Elizabeth King states, “The Peruvians used spindles of thorn and wood with or without spindle whorls of pottery, stone, or wood.” Many of my sources rhapsodized over the skill of the Andean spinners, the incomparable fineness and evenness of their yarns. Although this intimidated me, I did my best to spin a fine, even yarn, aided by the smoothness and fineness of the alpaca fiber I was spinning.
Women were the primary household spinners, as Jane Feltham describes: “The spinner makes a small length of yarn by twisting together some fibres with her fingers. She attaches this to the spindle, which she twirls and drops, while drawing out the fibres from roving with the thumb and forefinger of her other hand. As the yarn is spun, it is wound on to the spindle” (17-18). Yarns can be spun either clockwise or counterclockwise so that the final twist resembles the letter “S” or “Z” when viewed from the side. In most places, including Peru, yarns are plied in the opposite direction of the twist used to spin them. Feltham continues, “The direction of spin and ply have varied over time and place and can be important in identifying the provenance of certain textiles. Wool, both then and now, is almost always Z-spun and S-plied. The direction of the spin of cotton varies. In the highlands today woollen yarns spun with an S twist are called lloq’e and deemed to have magical properties” (19).
Like many PreColumbian Andean cultures, the Nasca were master natural dyers and used the natural variation in alpaca colors to get the greatest variation in hues. According to Jose Antonio de Lavalle and Jose Alejandro Gonzalez Garcia, “Colors were obtained from four general sources. First, from the natural shades of wool and cotton which yielded a wide variety: ivory whites, lustrous blacks, rich umbers, cool greys and mustard-like fawns from the wool of the camelids, and a lilac-tinted grey, various shades of brown, white and beige from the species of cotton, gossypium barbadense, that grows indigenously in Peru. Secondly, from certain plants… referred to by some of the Spanish chroniclers… Colors were also obtained from certain insects and molluscs: the cochineal, for example, which is found in opuntia fields, and whose crushed powder provides a carmine red, or the chanque, a small marine creature which excretes a purplish liquid and which is native to such areas as the Paracas peninsula. Finally, certain earth tones appear to have been obtained from rock and mineral sources…” (60).
Many of the natural plant dyes the ancient Nasca used are still widely used today: Brazilwood, known to the Nasca as “brasil” (Caesalpinia echinata), cochineal, known as “magno” or “macno” (Dactylopius coccus), indigo, known as “xiquilite” (Indigofera suffruticosa), and walnut (Juglans sp.). A satisfactory green dye is hard to find in nature, so many cultures worldwide, including the Nasca, have overdyed yellow yarns with blue to obtain bright green. I had the opposite problem with yellow dye, which is so easy to obtain that dyers use local plants. The Nasca would have used a variety of local plants, including Peruvian false peppertree (Schinus molle), Holy or Blessed thistle (Cnicus benedictus), “chillca” or “chillka” (Baccharis prostata or salicifolia), and Spanish Needle, known as “quico” (Bidens andicola). I used authentic dyes where possible, but I had to replace the yellow with a local dye of my own: goldenrod.
I enlisted the help of a local natural dye enthusiast, Dr. Lance Myler, to do my dyeing. I premordanted some of the yarns with alum. The Nasca would also have used iron and urine, as well as “such mordants as oxalic acid, tannin products, ashes, fermented black mud that could be rich in iron salts, in tannin and in tannates… copper sulphates and river salts, apart from copper sulphate which is blue vitriol” (Lavalle and Garcia 60). We dyed the yellow, blue, and green yarn at the North Country Folklife Festival in Massena, demonstrating natural dyeing for the Almanzo Wilder House. Several times, the literature about the Nasca stated that the Nasca could have overdyed natural fawn alpaca fleece with indigo to create blue. I tested this assertion and found that it only produced a duller blue, so I don’t believe that the Nasca with their love of bright color would have done this.
We dyed the red yarns with cochineal mixed with nitric acid to change the normal rose color of cochineal dye to red. The Nasca would have used acidic lime juice to modify their natural dyes. The first dyeing was a bit light, so I redyed it with another bath of cochineal for a nice deep red. I may also test the Brazilwood dye on one of the skeins, because one of my sources mentioned that the Nasca would combine cochineal and Brazilwood dyes (although a chemical analysis I read stated that the Nasca never combined the two dyes).
Cross-knit looping has often been mistaken for crossed knitting in the archaeological record. In the late 19th century, William Holmes did not even attempt to understand the subtle differences between cross-knit looping and knitting: “Knitting was common also [among the Nasca], but, as the interloopings are very difficult to describe, I will not now undertake to analyze them” (15). Later, Lila M. O’Neale, Raoul d’Harcourt, and other researchers made experimental recreations of the technique with a needle and yarn to understand its construction better. Although cross-knit looping and crossed knitting appear similar in the finished product, cross-knit looping uses a sewing needle to form a looped fabric, whereas crossed knitting uses two longer knitting needles to form an interlooped fabric. Cross-knit looping has also been referred to as “Needleknitting, Knit-stem stitch, Chain stitch, and Countered-stem stitch” (Lavalle and Garcia 296). The Nasca used cross-knit looping in camelid fibers to ornament the edges of woven cotton garments. Sometimes the cross-knit looping was three-dimensional, while in other textiles like the one I copied, it was used to form flat tabs.
I presented a paper entitled “Re-creation of a Nasca Cross-Knit-Looped Edging” at the 2006 Textile Society of America Symposium, which was held at the Textile Museum of Canada. This conference was a great opportunity for me to network with textile professionals and attend other presentations. I got the chance to speak with experts on Andean textiles and benefit from their experience. I presented my project at the Spring Colloquium for the Presidential Scholars Program in April 2007.
Being part of the SUNY Potsdam Presidential Scholars Program gave me a great opportunity to combine my academic and extracurricular interests. Through financial and academic support, it allowed me to explore undergraduate research and gain experiences I could never have had without the program’s backing. I would also like to thank Dr. Bethany Usher, Dr. Patricia Whelehan, Roxane Shaughnessy, Angel Dunkelberg, Dr. Lance Myler, and Heather Nelson for their help with my project.
Homage to a Mailbox
For years now it’s been a tradition to paint my family’s mailbox every time they get a new one. Since it has been hit by plows, cars, baseball bats, and BBs, I’ve had plenty of opportunities for creativity in choosing which masterpieces to immortalize in mailbox art.
“I am your father’s balaclava!” I crocheted and knit this Darth facemask and helmet for my brother. My father helped me find a pair of sunglasses that we could take apart so that I could sew the lenses into the balaclava. I’ve heard that he wears it every day because it’s so comfortable and practical.
I made these free-form quilted placemats for a friend. For the first one, the lotus, I tried sketching a flower in pencil on the fabric first, but I found that it was easier to use the sewing machine as a pen.
The Knitted Tapestry
We recently collaborated to knit a tapestry inspired by a conference logo. Knitters in artistic pursuits often get less attention than weavers or other fiber artists, and as a result, many knitters have an artistic inferiority complex. This is strange, because knitting as a medium is uniquely suited to creating fine art. Knitting is flexible and can be used to create flowing, curvaceous shapes or rigid, geometric lines. Knitting is beautifully textured, with an array of yarns from smooth and silky to fluffy or metallic and a wide range of different stitches; even changes in the direction of plain stockinette stitch create subtle texture. Knitting can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional, and can also make subtle or bold color effects. Elizabeth Zimmerman helped many knitters free themselves from the need to follow patterns; knitting a tapestry helped us to free ourselves from the need to make garments or household accessories. Knitting a tapestry is no harder than knitting a sweater or a sock; the process can be freeing and can help your creative boundaries and self-confidence grow. As “ordinary” knitters, we used our garment shaping skills to create free-form shapes which we appliquéd onto a background.
The design for this tapestry came from a logo for the 2005 Friends General Conference Gathering. We chose the design because it had a meaningful subject, strong, simple shapes, and a limited color palette. A design with a rainbow of blended colors and a myriad of fine lines and small pieces might not be suitable for knitting a tapestry. After we got the idea to knit the tapestry, we discussed how we would knit it, drawing arrows on the logo to indicate the direction of the knitting. We put a lot of thought into each piece, considering different techniques and often arguing over which would be best. This planning paid off, because we were able to knit most pieces without ripping them back.
We spent at least an hour in two different yarn shops choosing the right yarns. Above all, we wanted yarns that closely matched the logo’s colors. We also wanted yarns that were fine and flexible enough to accurately reproduce the pieces of the logo, yarns that could be stretched and blocked into shape. We ended up with mostly wool yarns, with one alpaca and one cotton yarn because they matched the logo’s unusual colors well. The natural fibers of these yarns enriched the finished piece, adding another dimension of visual and tactile texture and recalling the history of the craft in the tapestry.
Before knitting, we made a full-size “cartoon” (in the sense of the Renaissance mural-makers) of the tapestry with outlines of each of the shapes we would be knitting. We did this by measuring points on the logo, using a ratio of 1:7 to enlarge them, and connecting the dots, but using a projector to enlarge the image and tracing it would work equally well. We used this cartoon as the basis for each of our knitted shapes. As we knit, we held the pieces against the cartoon and decided to increase, decrease, or continue knitting straight in order to stay within the lines.
We approached each piece like the garments they reminded us of, casting on in the center of the lion’s mane and shaping it like a circular shawl, working the dove’s tail with short rows like a sock, mitering the border like a modular square. The complex shaping in the lion’s head gave us the most trouble. Unlike the other pieces, we were unable to visualize the cast-on and knitting direction for this shape. In the end, we worked the lion’s head in two directions, picking up a cast-on edge under each eye. We used a wealth of knitting knowledge garnered from knitting magazines, books, and years of making sweaters, hats, and mittens. We kept the texture minimal, using only knit and purl patterns, and the pieces flat for easy assembly, because this was our first tapestry. We knit the stockinette stitch background with sprinklings of purls by hand, although we sometimes wished for a knitting machine to speed the process along.
After knitting all of the pieces of the tapestry, we went to the local hardware store (always an inspiring place for knitters) to buy a backing material. The man who helped us buy nylon window screening seemed a bit puzzled about how we intended to use it. We stretched the screen on a provisional wooden frame larger than our finished size so that we could sew the pieces up to the edge of the tapestry where they would overlap the frame. We ran white threads, which we later pulled out, to mark the dimensions of the tapestry on the window screen. Then we used sewing thread in matching colors to whipstitch the background and each piece of the tapestry to the screen.
When we had tacked the knitting to the screen, we embroidered some finishing details on the tapestry with the yarns we used to knit it. We used only a few simple stitches with dramatic effects: chain stitch and split stitch for the outlines and whiskers, St. George cross stitch for the fish’s eye, satin stitch for the lamb’s eyes, and lazy daisy stitch for the lamb’s nose. The lamb’s nose needed to be finer than the rest of the embroidery, so after much trial and error we used multiple strands of the matching sewing thread to stitch the nose instead of yarn. After finishing the embroidery on the tapestry, we took the window screen off of the original wooden frame and wrapped it around a piece of sturdy, thin plywood, tacking it in place with a staple gun.
The logo that inspired us to make our tapestry had a stylized dove hanging off the lower right corner. When we first discussed making the tapestry, we agreed that we would not include the dove. As we thought about it, though, we realized that trying to make the dove would test our ingenuity and add drama to our tapestry. We knit the front and back simultaneously, reversing the pattern shaping so that they would exactly match. When we blocked these pieces, we sprayed them with starch so that they would lie stiff and flat. We cut a piece of thin plastic from a leftover stencil in the shape of the dove to stiffen it, painting it white so that the lines wouldn’t show through the fine white knitting. Then we sewed the two pieces of the dove together around the plastic. We finished the seam with a blue single crocheted edging, to match the blue outline from the logo. To attach the dove to the tapestry, we carefully punctured a hole in the plastic between the stitches at a point high on the wing, and stitched through this hole to the tapestry several times.
We exhibited our tapestry at the 2005 Friends General Conference Gathering whose logo inspired us to make our tapestry. We also showed it at the Creative Spirit Art Center’s second annual Quilts and Fiber Arts Show. The tapestry was exciting and surprisingly easy to make. Best of all, it didn’t have to fit or flatter anyone’s figure, go with anyone’s winter jacket, or even coordinate with a sofa. It was knitting for art’s sake, and there’s nothing more liberating than that. We are already planning how we will make our next tapestry, with bolder bas relief texture and more embellishments. If, like us, you are an experienced knitter who wants to use your creativity and make something beautiful and different, a knitted tapestry could be your next project!