Tools of the Trade

We spend a lot of time thinking about textiles in all their glorious manifestations, but we don’t spend very much time thinking about the tools we use to make them. At least, I don’t. I was reminded of this when I was looking at some of the amazing goodies the Carlos Museum at Emory University has in its collections. Of course, the textiles are represented in impressive quantity and diversity: Indigo cloth from Cameroon; huipils from Guatemala (one dated to 1875!); a hunter’s shirt from Mali made with cloth, leather, shells, animal claws, and horns; a variety of khipu from Peru not to mention dozens of other Andean textiles and fragments; woven and embroidered kuba cloth from the Congo; beaded aprons from South Africa, and on and on it goes. But it’s some of the tools in the collection that struck me. Tools and craftsmanship whose value extends from this life to the afterlife. Tools that impose order over chaos.

Ceremonial Huipil from Guatemala, 1875. Bright Collection of Guatemalan Textiles. © Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Bruce M. White, 2012.

Tooling Up

In the Carlos Collections Online, you will see a thousand-year-old reed workbasket discovered off the central coast of Peru. Its contents include a spindle, a batten of sorts, cotton, and dyed llama or alpca fiber.
The online description offers this:
“The amounts of these unspun fibers are too small to create actual thread and so the fibers seem to symbolize the weaver’s ability to make thread in the afterlife. A small bowl, used to keep the end of the spindle in place while making fine thread, attests to this weaver’s consummate technical skill. In the ancient Central Andes textiles were held in high regard; therefore placing this workbasket in the burial was a status symbol, even a point of pride, for the deceased weaver.”

Weavers Workbasket, 1000-1450 AD. © Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Michael McKelvey.

A Bone to Pick

Another tool you’ll discover in the Online Collection is a bone batten from Oaxaca, Mexico. More than thirty of this kind of carved bone batten were excavated from Tomb 7 at the Monte Alban archaeological site.

Bone Batten from Oaxaca. Collection of Art of the Ancient Americas. © Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. Photo by Michael McKelvey.

Here’s more from the online description:
“These carved bones are battens used to pick up warp threads in complicated weaving sequences and to help beat down the weft after the shed has been changed. On this example the pointed ends have broken, suggesting use. The functionality of these battens also implies that the graves containing them may be those of women, who were the principal, though not necessarily the exclusive, weavers in ancient Mesoamerica. However, weaving also carries a deeper significance in Mesoamerican cultures. The orderliness of weaving is associated with the celestial cosmic sphere, the ultimate goal of the afterlife journey. Thus, to take with the deceased a weaving tool, specifically one that orders the threads being picked up, may have more than gender implications. A ceremonial but functional weaving implement may serve to represent the triumph of order over chaos and the deceased over the Underworld.”

Order over Chaos

As I read that wonderful bit about weaving tools and the triumph of order over chaos, I remembered something a Navajo weaver told me recently. It was about how Navajo stories encourage the people to weave during times of trouble in the world. When I first heard this, I thought, “Yes, creation over destruction.” Or maybe it’s just recognizing the power of the maker and her tools. In this world and in others.

Go on over to the Carlos Museum Online Collection and enjoy over 2,000 objects they’ve posted there. And if you’re lucky enough to live or travel in the Atlanta area, visit in person. The Museum is home to about 17,000 artifacts from cultures across the globe. Plus they’re doing important conservation work, offering educational programs for kids , and putting up standout exhibitions—a new one called Threads of Time: Tradition and Change in Indigenous American Textiles opens next week. And there’s a terrific bookshop that sells a fine assortment of textile books.


Learn more about Textiles from Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru in these Thrums Books.

Secrets of Spinning Traditional Weavers of Guatemala

OaxacaStories  Maya Threads

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