The completion of a four-year Birkbeck-led research project into Andean textiles has created a unique and innovative resource for archaeologists, museum curators, contemporary weavers and the fashion industry.

The AHRC-funded project, Weaving Communities of Practice, investigated the relationship between textiles, culture and identity in the Andes from 600 CE to the present.  Led by Dr Luciana Martins, of Birkbeck’s Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies (CILAVS), with Denise Arnold of the Instituto de Lengua y Cultura Aymara (ILCA) in La Paz, Bolivia, Sven Helmer and Alex Poulovassilis of Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, the researchers have created a resource which will provide access to over 700 digitised samples of Andean textiles and weaving instruments from Bolivia, Peru and Chile.

Until now, researchers have had to rely on textile samples in museums to develop their studies, requiring expensive travel to museums spread across the world.  This research involves very detailed analysis of weaving techniques and structures which are often difficult to visualise due to their complexity and fragility.

Textiles in 3D

Now, informatics teams in Birkbeck and La Paz on the Weaving Communities of Practice project have created a detailed ‘anatomy’ of each textile sample in 3D, allowing researchers to visualise weaving structures much more precisely.

Lead Investigator Luciana Martins said: “Our website and database will provide access to a rich and diverse body of material that encompasses archaeological, ethnographic and contemporary textiles.  We hope this will provide exciting opportunities for those working in this field nationally and internationally.

“Being able to study these intricate 3D images will potentially enable archaeologists to identify a textile’s precedence more closely, and will enable researchers to develop comparative studies and understand more about pre-Columbian ancient textile techniques.

“For contemporary weavers, and the fashion and creative industry, the images provide a fascinating insight into the complexity and sophistication of pre-Columbian textiles before the advent of industrial ways of production.”

Unique database

Drawing on innovative methodologies, the project combined work in museum collections and fieldwork, digital documentation and information visualization, and an ontological modelling of the data. The resulting database is based on a common yet simple technical language oriented towards understanding the structures and techniques of Andean textiles from a weaver’s point of view.

The project involved 12 museum collections and textile archives in the British Museum and V&A Museum in the UK, and in the Andean region of Latin America (Bolivia, Peru and Chile). It documented some 300 archaeological textiles (ca. 600-1532 AD), 50 historical textiles (1532-1900), and 200 ethnographic textiles (1901-present).

Weaving performance

To celebrate the successful completion of the project, Birkbeck is hosting Water Quipu, a multi-media performance by Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña in which she weaves  images, chants and tells stories of life as a quipu maker of the 21st century. Water Quipu will be hosted in the Peltz Room, Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD on Wednesday 12 June from 6-7.30pm, followed by a drinks reception. This event is free but booking is essential. Register here