Preservation or Innovation: What’s Best for Textile Traditions?

I get the best email.

Dear Linda,

Here’s a question that has been wandering around in the back of my mind ever since I went to Peru a couple of years ago. I’m a weaver, knitter, and sewist, so I love this stuff. In the Sacred Valley, we saw Nilda Callanaupa and her merry band of spinners and weavers of the CTTC. I admired several lovely pieces and very much enjoyed handing money directly to the lady who wove the piece I finally chose to bring home with me. I do appreciate the efforts to save the traditional techniques and patterns, and to help the traditional compete with modern crap. But . . .

Antonia, a CTTC weaver from Chinchero, Peru, weaves a manta. Photo from Thrums Books’s, Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage by Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez.

. . . But I keep thinking about a conversation I had with a tour guide in Salzburg, Austria, who was talking about a piece of modern public sculpture and the furor it caused—it became the focal point of a debate about whether Salzburg should be a museum (and if so, should it be Mozart’s Salzburg or the Sound of Music‘s Salzburg) or a living, breathing city.

Traditional Andean textile designs. Photo from Textile Traditions of Chinchero: A Living Heritage by Nilda Callanaupa Alvarez.

What I haven’t really seen in these discussions of Andean textiles is whether these weavers are actually choosing to just recreate the traditional patterns, or whether there is some pressure to keep to them as “preservation.” I assume there are textile programs in the universities and arty parts of the cities where people are doing the kinds of experimental stuff we see here in the States—but are the working women of the mountains just stuck being living history interpreters? Or are they doing amazing things and I just missed it on my short visit?


Dear Julia,

You’ve asked a really good question. The answer, of course, is complicated. CTTC does market only traditional work, and insists on high quality standards. The thrust of this organization has been the revival of ancient techniques, not the invention of new ones. Nilda has been remarkably successful in this regard and has provided meaningful income for the weavers who follow this path.

One of her stellar men weavers from the small village of Chahuaytire, on the other hand, has learned how to emulate the traditional work using foot-powered looms. His work is very nice—not the real deal, but it’s attractive and well made—and he is making more money, which is good. Then there are artists like Maximo Laura  who are using the native fibers and natural dyes, but creating stunning contemporary tapestries. And he’s teaching others to do this as well. Is that good or bad? I guess it’s a choice, and it’s good to have choices. (Except now the markets are flooded with Maximo Laura knock-offs.)

A trio of weavers from the community of Chahuaytire.

I had the incredible good fortune on a recent trip to Peru to work with some young weavers from several communities (ages 10-25), and their reverence for the traditional techniques and motifs was palpable. Working in this way binds them to their community and their family and their ancestors, and they value it greatly. Even if their ambition is to get a higher education and leave the mountains, they see preserving the old ways as important. But at the same time, a young Quechua girl, Renata Flores, recently became a YouTube sensation doing Michael Jackson  and Alicia Keyes—in Quechua.

So . . . I wouldn’t say the mountain people are stuck. They do the work that’s meaningful to them and for which there’s a market. If someone broke out with an avant-garde piece of weaving, I wonder what would happen?

Guatemala Rug Hooking project
Carmen Maldonado from the Maya Women’s Rug Hooking Group. Photograph courtesy of Cheryl Conway, Multicolores Guatemala.

For comparison, check out the work of Multicolores  in Guatemala. An American artist, Maryanne Wise,  taught women there to design and make hooked rugs (not a traditional art form) using recycled cloth and design elements from their own traditions. The results have been fantastic, original, and highly sellable. A real success story of a different sort. Could something like that work in the Andean highlands? Maybe so. But the circumstances are so different. I don’t have any answers, but I’m glad you asked.


Dear Readers,

This discussion can apply just as well to traditional patchwork quilts or Navajo rugs as to Andean textiles. What do YOU think? Let us hear from you. Leave a reply, or email us at


1 thoughts on “Preservation or Innovation: What’s Best for Textile Traditions?

  1. msb says:

    I get irked when American weavers go to places to view “traditional” weaving and it’s not what they expected. They come back and decry the disappearance of the traditional weaving. But we’re not weaving overshot coverlets here nor are we doing the “traditional” embroidered samplers that we see on the walls of museums. Sometimes I think we really want to preserve the traditional work is so that we can have a great vacation and bring back nice things for our guild to enjoy. We weave with Tencel so why are we worried/disappointed when someone uses acrylic?

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