Symbols and History of Spinning in the Andean Textile Traditions

For the Aztec, spinning and weaving symbology were connected with pre-columbian goddesses. Spindle whorls were elaborately decorated with motifs related to deities responsible for sexuality, childbirth, and major events in the female life cycle. Spinning and weaving helped to define feminity. A woman who spun but never wove was equated with infertility.

In Abancay, Peru, cloth is central to the definition of self. It may replace the individual and be used in witchcraft to harm the owner.

Andean men, women, and children all spin, an occupation that can be accomplished while tending animals. In Chinchero, Peru, men produce slings and cords for llama halters. Women weave shoulder cloths or llikllas and other clothing elements, while young girls create narrow ties or hakimas as their first textile.

High Andean weavers Village of Quenqo,located 45 km outside of Cusco Peru at 4000m ASL. The spinning of threads is incorporated into all daily activities of the Andean women. The traditional Andean spinning top hand spindle called a Puscha is used to make threads from the raw wool. The threads are dyed and get a second spinning using two threads intertwined to complete the final working thread.

Spinzilla is a global event where teams and individuals compete to see who can spin the most yarn in a week! The rural weavers of Huancarani, Bolivia, have been spinning yarn by hand for their entire lives and are now fighting to maintain the traditions that have characterized their isolated communities as more and more rural Bolivians migrate to the city. May this be the beginning of a movement to honor and respect the skills and talents of the aging weavers and to motivate younger generations to carry on the ancient Andean textile tradition.

Andean textiles reflect the fabric of life—a unique heritage of woven stories and cultural traditions inspired by the high, windswept deserts and snow-capped peaks of the Andes. In the ancient Andean world, textiles served as a primary form of artistic expression as well as a powerful visual medium for portraying nature’s secrets and the order of the universe. The Incas believed cosmic harmony required balance in all realms of life— nature-culture, male-female, past-future, front-back, right-left, and top-to-bottom. Textile designs from both pre- and post-Spanish Conquest periods reflect these belief systems, whether destined for ceremonial purposes or for everyday use.




Education in spinning and weaving techniques began at an early age, and by adolescence girls were learning the rudiments of weaving.

Mapuche traditional custom is to place newborn girls, spiders web threads around their wrists or spider veins also slide the palm of their hands to convey the secrets of the most important textile art process: the thread.

Women pass their knowledge from generation to generation orally or using gestures. This know-how was transmitted in the family and household. The women were valued and respected for their high skills in weaving and spinning, and still are.

Although the tissue belongs to the female sphere, it has been seen in Cuzco and northwestern Argentina men Inca descendants with the spindle. In some remote provinces of Cuzco still were not well cultivated by the Inca kings, they were women to work in the fields and the men were at home spinning and weaving.

In Argentina, the first hand-spun cordage—a mixture of plant fibers, wool, and human hair—dates to nearly 7670 BC and was found in a cave in Jujuy Province. The domestication of native Andean camelids—guanacos, alpacas, llamas, and vicuñas—as a consistent wool source clearly predated the Inca’s cultural ascendency. In fact, woven cloth became such a valuable commodity that it functioned as a status symbol and often took the place of monetary currency.


Peru- Alto Peru
North Argentina

The process of spinning by hand is an ancient art that is to transform the fiber into yarn twisting several short while to join them and produce a continuous strand fibers.

Therefore fingers are used but to be precise, the spindle is the most primitive and simplest object that serves for spinning textile fibers is used.

There is two ways of spinning

  1. Drop-spinning

Drop-spinning is done with a heavy whorl on the spindle shaft, where the rotating spindle is repeatedly dropped to draw out and twist the raw fiber. Drop-spinning can be done virtually anywhere, and ethnographic accounts describe women spinning with this technique as they walk to the fields or in the marketplace.

How to spin:

  1. Make a leader. Tie a two and a half foot long piece of yarn right above the edge of the whorl, the disc at the bottom of the spindle.
  2. Tie a knot at the top of the spindle where an indentation is.
  3. Twirl the hand spindle (drop spindle) in a clockwise direction.
  4. Holding the end of the leader with one hand, hold the edge of the unspun fibers to the end of the leader without letting go. The fiber should start looking like yarn.
  5. Wind the yarn you just spun onto the hand spindle (drop spindle) shaft and continue.
  6. Once you have a large amount of yarn, wind it off to another stick and repeat the whole process again.
  7. Take the second length of yarn off and put the two ends together.
  8. Tie them both to the leader and begin to spin the spindle ANTI-clockwise (or the other direction to what you spun it before) this is called plying and will make your yarn twice as strong and counter-twist the already twisted two half yarns.
Photo 1 - drop-spinning
Photo 1 – drop-spinning
  1. Supported spinning

 Supported spinning is done with the tip of the spindle shaft resting in a small bowl or on a flat surface. It provides greater control over the spinning process and results in a finer-quality thread.

How to spin:

  1. Making a lead: Hold the fiber in your left hand and the spindle in your right hand. Catch a few fibers on the spindle hook, pinch them and draw them just slightly out of the fiber mass. Rotate the spindle several turns clockwise. This will start your lead.
  2. Hold the spindle upright, pinch the fibers on the hook and draw your fiber mass up a little. Spin the spindle and let the twist run up the lead.
  3. Repeat this until you have about two feet of thread. Draft out any slubs and give the spindle a spin to put more twist in your thread. Now slide the end of the thread down the shaft, and wind half of it clockwise around the base of the shaft, just above the whorl. You have made yourself a lead for your spindle.
  4. Ready to spin: Lay the last foot of thread (lead) up the shaft, lean the spindle slightly to the left. Hold the fiber gently, and the spindle firmly and draft out fibers until it feels real weak. Now give your spindle a spin, letting the lead wrap around the shaft and putting strength in the drafted fibers.
  5. Pinch at the top of the spindle with your right thumb and first finger, holding the thread firmly, draw out more fibers until the thread becomes weak. Then spin again until you have almost an arm’s length of thread.

Then draft out the slubs by pinching off the twist with your left thumb and first finger so the extra twist will not go up into the loose fiber. Now gently pull on the thread until the slubs come out. Give it a quick spin. Lastly holding the thread taunt, (lift the spindle out of the bowl and the weight of the spindle will keep the thread taunt), give the spindle a good spin and strengthen the thread. Wind onto the spindle leaving about 12 to spiral up the shaft to start again.

Photo 2 - Supported spinning
Photo 2 – supported spinning


Huancayo, Perú
Hualhuas, Perú
Alto Perú

A spinning wheel is a machine used to turn fiber into thread or yarn. This thread or yarn is then woven as cloth on a loom. The spinning wheel’s essential function is to combine and twist fibers together to form thread or yarn and then gather the twisted thread on a bobbin or stick so it may be used as yarn for the loom. The action is based on the principle that if a bunch of textile fibers is held in one hand and a few fibers are pulled out from the bunch, the few will break from the rest. However, if the few fibers are pulled from the bunch and at the same time are twisted the few pulled out will begin to form a thread. If the thread is let go it will immediately untwist, but if wound on a stick or bobbin it will remain a thread that can be used for sewing or weaving.

Many different kinds of fibers can be spun on a simple spinning wheel, including wool and hairs; bast fibers which come from below the surface of a plant stem including flax (linen), hemp, jute, ramie, and nettle; and seed fibers, particularly cotton. Each of these fibers vary tremendously in length of staple, quality and strength. Different fibers require different kinds of pieces or bobbins placed on the spinning wheel and even call for spinning wheels of different size or configuration in order to spin the specific fiber more efficiently. Spinning wheels were one of the first craft tools to be supplanted by modern machinery.

While there is no single spinning wheel design, the iconic spinning wheel has three splayed legs, a foot treadle connected to a footman that attaches to the driving wheel thus making the wheel go around. A horizontal stock is the wooden plank or bed upon which most of the apparatus rests upon. The driving wheel is perhaps the most prominent feature of the spinning wheel and resembles a wheel with turned spindles in the center (thread is pulled along the outside of that wheel). The bobbin is a grooved wooden spool that fits on the flyer, which gathers the yarn after it is spun. The bobbin fits into a U-shaped flyer (a bracket with hooks on it that guide the yarn onto the bobbin and keep the yarn evenly distributed on it). The distaff and distaff arm hold a batch of unspun fiber. These are only the primary parts of the spinning wheel as the typical wheel has well over 100 small parts that fit together to ensure quality spinning.

Photo 3 - spinning wheel
Photo 3 – spinning wheel

Next, we will have a closer look on weaving symbols and history in the Andean textile culture.

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