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Bolivia’s Master Weavers Speak Without Words

A story about the master weavers of Bolivia.

I see them in dreams,” says Dominga Gonzales of the black figures emerging before her on a red background. Using just a loom and simple tools she has worked for months on a tapestry populated by mystical animals. Like many weavers from the central Bolivian town of Jalq’a, Gonzales learned from her mother how to make the creatures of her imagination real. She now deftly manipulates almost 1,500 fine threads on a large wooden loom.

The colonial Bolivian city of Sucre is located near two of the country’s best-known communities of weavers: Tarabuco and Jalq’a. The art of weaving, practiced in distinctive forms over thousands of years by Indigenous Peoples of the Andes, is both a practical and symbolic act of creation. The pieces that form over the course of months become skirts, capes and ponchos worn today by many people who live in rural areas, and live on in their imaginations.

The traditional style of Tarabuco weavings is totally different from that in Jalq’a, though the two indigenous Quechua communities are less than 100 miles apart. While imaginary animals populate Jalq’a weavings, women in Tarabuco weave fine, light-colored cloths full of llamas, condors and other animals that roam Bolivia’s mountains and plains. Scenes from everyday life and festivals are also portrayed in minute detail. “Weaving is a form of writing,” says Milton Eyzaguirre Morales, director of outreach for Bolivia’s National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore. Morales says that the patterns, the open space and even the direction of the weave tell a story about where a cloth was made, the person who made it and the person for whom it was made. This wordless language is unintelligible to most outsiders.

Though the weaving styles of each area are unique, Bolivia’s Quechua and Aymara indigenous majority now mix themes much as the Inca and ancient Aymara did thousands of years ago. When the Spanish arrived in Bolivia in the 1500s, they also fundamentally influenced the practice. The Spanish outlawed the depiction of mystical animals in textiles, along with many other aspects of indigenous dress. Morales says this prohibition had a deep effect on communities like Tarabuco, which were easily accessible in colonial times and whose modern weavings lack the fantastical creatures of harder-to-reach places like Jalq’a.

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Today, the tastes of the thousands of tourists who purchase textiles in Bolivia each year are a major factor in which regions have the best sales totals. “The perception we have of weaving is a Western perception. That idea is: the more iconography it has, the more complexity in its composition, the better it is,” Morales says. Though works full of figures may appeal more to the Western perception, he says that for Bolivian weavers, a tapestry of simple stripes can display just as much complex work and detailed information.

Tarabuco is a sleepy agricultural town of dry, golden-brown fields and strange rock formations in central Bolivia. At the Sunday market there, tourists browse the stalls buying weavings they can display back home while locals wear the same weavings as ponchos, shirts and hats. With its paved-road access, relaxed atmosphere and famous textiles, Tarabuco is an increasingly popular day trip for visitors to Bolivia’s constitutional capital, Sucre. “I love the idea of seeing the markets and buying weavings directly from the indigenous people instead of from a retailer,” says Dawn Ellsum, an Australian who has traveled for months in South America. For Ellsum one of Bolivia’s greatest draws is the strength with which many people hold to traditions, as they hold to weaving here.
In a quiet corner of Tarabuco, Andrea Huamani sits at her loom. Around her, recently dyed wool from her family’s sheep hangs to dry in festoons of black, purple and yellow. Huamani wears black clothes adorned by weavings and the high, round hat of the region’s Yampara Quechua women. For Huamani, weaving and wearing traditional clothes is a conscious choice. “I won’t stop using these clothes,” she says. “I’m maintaining the Tarabuco culture. I made these with my own hands.”

To learn more about weavings from Tarabuco and Jalq’a visit the website of Sucre’s Museo de Arte Indigena.