Tunic (Unku), c.800 AD
Huari Culture, c.800vAD
Interlocking Tapestry, 73 x 83cm
This masterpiece of tapestry weave is one of the finest examples ever to have survived relatively intact. A rare description of a type of tunic related to this example is preserved in Spanish chronicle written by Francisco de Xerez in 1534. The arrival of the last Inca ruler Atauhualpa, into the Spanish presence in Cajamarca was described: “ The men [of Atauhualpa’s army] began to enter the plaza; first came a squadron of Indians dressed in livery of colours in the manner of chessboards; they came removing straws from the ground and sweeping the road. Behind them came three more squadrons dressed in a different manner, all singing and dancing” (quoted in Jones 1964:7). Another important Spanish chronicle, that of Guaman Poma de Ayala, contains drawings of Inca warriors wearing checkerboard-patterned tunics. No red and white checked tunics are known; yet a number of these black and white checkered tunics with red stepped yokes have survived and may have had a significance somewhat related to that described by the Spanish. However, the stepped-yoke version could indicate higher status; perhaps such tunics were worn by military leaders or given as gifts by the ruler himself, since most examples of this type are made up entirely of camelid fibre and contain fancy embroidery around the edges. In any case, the checkerboard pattern, in one form or another, played a special role in the ruler’s entourage and in the army.
Although it is often assumed that weavers are universally female, this type of tunic almost certainly was woven by male weavers known as cumbicamayos ( “ ones in charge of fine cloth”). The Inca Empire was based on redistribution of goods and labour, especially cloth and its production. Specialists’ creation of fine tapestry cloth, cumbi, was tightly controlled and delineated: men made garments for the state to redistribute, such as army uniforms and royal gifts for conquered leaders, while select women (aclla) made cloth for religious purposes and royal use, such as clothing for priests, sacred images, and the ruling lineages. Everyday fabric was woven primarily by nonspecialist women, and tread was spun by one and all. Thus, men and women participated at different levels of complex system of cloth production that connected all levels of Inca society.