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The Peruvian Four Selvaged Cloth by Sophia Winitsky

A report on Up-Close with Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth, a program of the Textile Society of America.

On January 13, 2014 textile artists, collectors and enthusiasts gathered at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles for a guided tour of The Peruvian Four Selvaged Cloth with TSA President and curator of the exhibit, Elena Phipps. I had been to the exhibit twice prior, but it was a pleasure to see it through the eyes of the expert and curator, and have two of the artists, John Cohen and Jim Bassler, on board with us. We also got an exclusive chance to look up close at other coastal and Andean treasures in the Department of Regional Dress at UCLA.

A four-selvaged cloth is a textile where all four edges are woven, rather than two of them needing to be cut or taken off the loom and hemmed. As a weaver, this seemed impossible to me. How can a cloth have four finished sides? By rotating the loom to have what would be the edges actually meet in the middle of the cloth, four selvages are achieved. Along with analyzing the technique, we discussed the reasons for and advantages to weaving four selvaged cloth. Generally, weaving is the process used to make cloth that is then sewn or altered, to become other garments. In Peru, the textile comes off of the loom fully shaped to its final form. This is pretty remarkable. 

Along with exploring the various materials used for different textile products, we identified cultural, ecological and regional indicators, and different uses and techniques from looms found around Peru. We were amazed by the different ways color was applied to the pieces; mineral pigments painted on, color wrapped onto warp threads while weaving, tie and dye. On the tour, we had the pleasure of having John Cohen share his insight into the Peruvian weavers’ day-to-day life. He then described possible meanings behind the images, and how little we can actually know about specific iconography, having heard so many explanations for every figure during his travels through the region. His films documenting the four selvaged weave clearly showed the entire process, and his work has reintroduced an appreciation for this technique. Jim Bassler shared with us his experience weaving four selvages and experimenting with some of the tunic dying methods. It was incredible to see his contemporary pieces next to ancient artifacts and hear where and why he chose to veer from the traditional techniques. It gave us insight into what is most challenging and unusual about Peruvian weaves to a contemporary master weaver. Shelia Hicks’ four selvaged pieces were also featured. Each one was small, and had a similar basic structure, yet was so different, vibrant and delicately expressive.

After spending the morning in the exhibit, we ate lunch and talked about everyone’s current and exciting projects: The World Shibori Network conference in China, the TSA symposium in Los Angeles, and personal textile explorations. After lunch, we continued to examine textiles from the Department of Regional Dress at the Fowler. We looked at a Chancay doll, wrapped slingshots, coca bags, and pieces that illustrated discontinuous warp and weft, dye patterns and materials, identifying different cultures and time periods.
Overall, the day was a comprehensive look into the complexities and wonders of Peruvian weaving. By talking about how to film, learn, practice and analyze the techniques we were exposed to, I personally was moved by the sophistication and beauty of the craft. I was most impressed with the subtlety of the pieces and how even as a weaver I would have never imagined how intricate and delicate their techniques were!

Sophia Winitsky is a beginner weaver from Los Angeles, CA. She learned to weave at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC where she studied Environmental Education. She has been working weaving at Acme Studios in Los Angeles the past two years. Her textile interests include natural dying and fiber production as well as weaving and art quilting.