Arts and crafts

The wealth of Bolivian crafts draws on many centuries of skills and traditions from diverse peoples who were first incorporated into the Inca Empire, and later into the Spanish colony. Though much of this artistic heritage was destroyed by the Spanish conquest, the traditions adapted and evolved in numerous ways, absorbing new methods, concepts and materials from Europe while maintaining ancient techniques and symbols.

Textiles and costumes

Some of the most beautifully woven and dyed textiles to be found anywhere were produced by the Aymara people of the Bolivian Altiplano up until the late 19th century. These reflect the incredibly rich textile tradition which flourished in the Lake Titicaca basin since ancient times.

Far from being merely of utilitarian purpose, Andean textiles played major political, social and religious roles. Woven cloth was the most highly prized possession and sought-after trading commodity in the Andes in pre-Columbian times and was used to establish and strengthen social and political relationships. It also played a role in all phases of the life cycle.

The Incas inherited this rich weaving tradition from the Aymara and forced them to work in
or textile workshops. The largest quantities of the finest textiles were made specifically to be burned as ritual offerings - a tradition which still survives. The Spanish, too, exploited this wealth and skill by using the
and exporting the cloth to Europe.

Spanish chroniclers reported that, upon retreating from battle, Inca soldiers sometimes left behind thousands of llamas and prisoners, and even gold and silver, but chose to burn entire warehouses filled with cloth rather than leave them for the
. Indeed, in the
, the string knot recording system of the Incas, only people and camelids ranked above textiles.

It is, therefore, not surprising that ancient weaving traditions survived the conquest while other social and cultural traditions disappeared. Textiles continue to play an important part in society in many parts of Bolivia. They are still handed down from one generation to the next and used specifically for ritual ceremonies. As a result, the finest textiles have survived until today. However, the influence of modern technology has reached even remote highland areas. Rural people have begun to wear machine-made clothes and many aspects of the ancient art of weaving are now lost.


Prior to Inca rule Aymara men wore a tunic (
) and a mantle (
) and carried a bag for coca leaves (
). The women wore a wrapped dress (
) and mantle (
) and a belt (
); their coca bag was called an
. The
was fastened at shoulder level with a pair of metal
, the traditional Andean dress-pins.

Probably in imitation of the Aymara, the Inca men had tunics (
) and a bag for coca leaves called a
. The women wore a blouse (
), skirts (
) and belts (
), and carried foodstuffs in large, rectangular cloths called
, which were fastened at the chest with a single pin or a smaller clasp called a

In isolated Andean villages and communities women still wear the traditional
, a skirt over two pieces of cloth overlapping at the sides and held up by a belt. The women of Tarabuco and Potolo, near Sucre, for example, commonly wear
, while Tarabuco men wear red and orange striped ponchos, and hats similar to crash helmets, possibly inspired by the Spanish army helmets. Tarabuco women's hats are small white
decorated with sequins. One item of costume which plays a particularly important role in the lives of the native population is the belt. The Aymara devote much of their lives to making belts for different occasions.

During the post-conquest period native dress was modified to satisfy Spanish ideas of propriety. Spanish policy concerning dress demanded that the indigenous population should be fully and properly dressed at all times and that each person must be dressed according to his/her class. Spanish dress was restricted to the upper-class

The last century of the colonial period was disturbed by numerous indigenous uprisings. The Spanish rulers believed that by restricting the natives' traditional clothing it could diminish their identification with their ancestors and that discontent would, therefore, be reduced. Thus the native male costume became pants, jacket, vest and poncho. In the less accessible parts, people were able to preserve their customs to a certain extent. While the Spanish influence is still evident in much of the dress, indigenous garments are also worn, forming a costume that is distinctly Andean.

Textile materials and techniques

The Andean people used mainly alpaca or llama wool. The former can be spun into fine, shining yarn when woven and has a lustre similar to that of silk, though sheep's wool came to be widely used following the Spanish conquest.

A commonly used technique is the drop spindle. A stick is weighted with a wooden wheel and the raw material is fed through one hand. A sudden twist and drop in the spindle spins the yarn. This very sensitive art can be seen practised by women while herding animals in the fields.

Spinning wheels were introduced by Europeans and are now prevalent due to increased demand. Pre-Columbian looms were often portable and those in use today are generally similar. A woman will watch over her animals while weaving, perhaps on a backstrap loom, or waist loom, so-called because the weaver controls the tension on one side with her waist with the other side tied to an upright or tree. These looms can't be used on the treeless Altiplano so the Aymara people use four sticks set in the ground to hold the loom in place. The pre-Columbian looms are usually used for personal costume while the treadle loom is used for more commercial pieces in textile centres such as Villa Ribera, near Cochabamba, as it provides greater efficiency and flexibility.

Most weaving occurs during the winter, after the harvest and before the next year's planting. The women spend much of their day at the loom while also looking after the children and carrying out daily chores. A complex piece of textile can take up to several months to complete and, because of the time taken, is built to last many years.

Today, there is increasing pressure on indigenous people to desert their homes and join the white and mestizo people in the cities. Furthermore,
in native costume are often looked down on and considered uncivilized. There is a danger of the traditional textiles of the Andes becoming museum pieces rather than articles of daily use and wear. In some areas foreign aid and leadership of experts is proving effective. In Sucre, for example, a group of anthropologists has successfully brought about the revival of traditional village weaving.


Knitting has a relatively short history in the Andes. Fibres commonly used are alpaca, llama and sheep's wool. During the past two decades though, much of the alpaca and llama wool has been bought by larger companies for export. Today, much of the wool for knitting is bought ready-spun from factories.

Outside the towns the majority of knitting is still done by hand. Traditionally many of the
, knitted hats with ear flaps worn on the Altiplano, are knitted with four small hooked needles. In the Andes the more traditional pieces still have patterns with llamas, mountains and other scenic and geometric designs.


The skills of dyeing were still practised virtually unchanged even after the arrival of the Spaniards. Nowadays, the word
refers to any natural dye, but originally was the name for cochineal, an insect which lives on the leaves of the nopal cactus. These dyes were used widely by pre-Columbian weavers. Vegetable dyes are also used, made from the leaves, fruit and seeds of shrubs and flowers and from lichen, tree bark and roots. Although the high price for cochineal in the use of food colouring has discouraged its use for textiles, it is still widely combined with man-made dyes in textile centres such as Villa Ribera and around Lake Titicaca.


Symbolism plays an important role in weaving. Traditionally every piece of textile from a particular community had identical symbols and colours which were a source of identity as well as carrying specific symbols and telling a story. In the Andean world the planet Venus (
) played an important role in mythology and agricultural pattern. Its appearance was used to forecast the coming year's rainfall. This symbol and that of the Sun (
) predominated in textile decoration and were universal to the
, the self-sufficient and self-governing communities. The Jalq'a people of Sucre weave bizarre animal motifs on their
, or overskirts. These symbols perhaps represent
, creatures that inhabited the Earth before the birth of the Sun.

The arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century initiated a new era of symbolism as old and new elements appeared side by side. Symbols such as
may be found together with a horse figure introduced after the conquest. Sometimes the meanings of motifs have multiplied or been superseded. The cross, for example, in pre-Hispanic times signified the constellation of Cruz del Sur, the Southern Cross, or Cruz de la Siembra, guardian of the fields. Both have been eclipsed by the Christian symbol.

Buying textiles

Bolivia is an excellent source of textiles, which vary greatly from region to region in style, technique and use. For
the best place is in the shops behind San Francisco church in La Paz . Prices are lower if you buy direct from the Tarabuco people who carry their loads of textiles up and down the steep streets. Other good places to find textiles are the market in Tarabuco and at ASUR, a textile project based in Sucre which works closely with rural communities.

Among the many villages dotted throughout the Andes, the following produce textiles which are particularly sought after and, therefore, more expensive: Calcha, in southern Potosí; Tarabuco, near Sucre; Charazani, in the Apolobamba mountains in the north of La Paz department; Sica Sica, between La Paz and Oruro; Calamarca, south of La Paz on the road to Oruro; Challa, halfway between Oruro and Cochabamba. In the northern part of the Potosí department, southeast from Oruro and northwest of Sucre, are the villages of Llallagua, Sacaca, Bolívar and Macha. Here, traditional weaving is maintained more than in any other part of Bolivia and the textiles are the most widely sold, especially in La Paz.

If you are asked to pay US$200-300 for a
, which usually takes around two months to weave, this a more realistic price than US$10-20. If a
has old stains on it, it may be better to leave them, as cleaning it may damage the textile. In general, though, Andean weavings are tough and can cope with washing, though at cool temperatures. If buying a newly woven piece, check that the dyes are properly fixed before washing. Wet a small part then wipe it on white paper to see if any of the colours appear.


Hats were an important element of much pre-Hispanic costume and Bolivia has perhaps a greater variety than any other region in South America, with over 100 different styles. One reason for this is the high altitude of the Andes, where the sun's rays are more intense, making hats a necessity. Another is the survival of traditional costume among the country's indigenous majority. The hat is the most important piece of the
outfit and accompanies the wearer everywhere. The reason it is so important is because it is worn on the head, the most sacred part of the body and spirit.

One of the most familiar features of La Paz are the Aymara women with their brown or grey bowler, or derby hats, locally called a
. While the vast majority of the hats are made of felt, some are still made from rabbit hair, as they all were originally. Another style, worn by the residents of Tarija, near the Argentine border, is based on those worn by their colonial ancestors from Andalucía. In Potosí, the women's hat is like a 'stove-pipe', though these are becoming increasingly rare.

In Cochabamba, Quechua women wear a white top hat of ripolined straw, decorated with a black ribbon. According to legend, a young unmarried Quechua woman in the city was reprimanded by a Roman Catholic priest for living with her boyfriend, a practice common among indigenous couples intending to marry. As a punishment, she was made to wear a black ribbon around the base of the hat. The next day at Mass, much to the priest's chagrin, all the women were wearing the black ribbon and the style stuck.


In all their variety, the pre-Hispanic ceramics found in burial sites across the Americas have emphasized the extent to which the potters were concerned with imbuing their work with religious or magical symbolism. Their skill was not merely required to produce utilitarian objects necessary for daily life but was evidently a specialized, sometimes sanctified, art which required more than technical expertise.

Inca ceramic decoration consists mainly of small-scale geometric and usually symmetrical designs. One distinctive form of vessel which continues to be made and used is the
. This pot is designed to carry liquid, especially
, and is secured with a rope on the bearer's back. It is believed that
were used mainly by the governing Inca elite and became important status symbols.

With the Spanish invasion many indigenous communities lost their artistic traditions, others remained relatively untouched, while others still combined Hispanic and indigenous traditions and techniques. The Spanish brought three innovations: the potter's wheel, which gave greater speed and uniformity; knowledge of the enclosed kiln; and the technique of lead glazes. The enclosed kiln made temperature regulation easier and allowed higher temperatures to be maintained, producing stronger pieces. Today, many communities continue to apply pre-Hispanic techniques, while others use more modern processes.

Jewellery and metalwork

The Incas associated gold with the Sun. However, very few examples of their fine goldwork remain as the Spaniards melted down their amassed gold and silver objects and then went on to extract more precious metals from the ground. The surviving
were forced to work in barbaric conditions in gold and silver mines, where the death toll was horrifically high, most notoriously at Potosí.

During the colonial period gold and silver pieces were made to decorate the altars of churches and houses of the elite. Metalworkers came from Spain and Italy to develop the industry. The Spanish preferred silver and strongly influenced the evolution of silverwork during the colonial period. A style known as Andean baroque developed embracing both indigenous and European elements. Silver bowls in this style -
- are still used in Andean ceremonies.

Part of the Inca female costume was a large silver pin with a decorative head, the
, worn at the neck of the cloak, or
, to hold it in place. Today, it continues to be made and used by the majority of Quechua-speaking people in Bolivia, though its form has changed over the centuries. In Inca times the decorative head was usually disc or fan-shaped, thought to derive from the
knife used for surgery. During colonial times Western emblems superseded the Inca forms. When in the 19th century uprisings caused native costume to be strictly authority-regulated, the
developed an oval, spoon-shaped head, sometimes incised, and had charms suspended on silver chains.

In the Amazon Basin seeds, flowers and feathers continue to be used as jewellery by many peoples. The Western fashion for natural or ethnic jewellery has encouraged production, using brightly coloured feathers, fish bones, seeds or animal teeth.


Carved religious figures, usually made from hardwoods, were a central influence in the development of woodcarving. In Eastern Bolivia, as in Paraguay, the tradition of carving and painting religious figures originates with the Jesuits, whose missions, or
, gathered the indigenous people into settlements . They were set to work to build churches and produce handicrafts, such as earthenware pots, paintings and woodcarvings to adorn the churches. After the Jesuits' expulsion the
were left to fend for themselves. They kept their techniques and traditions that had been passed on to them and from these evolved the style of woodcarving today.

Good examples of indigenous woodcarving can be found in La Paz and Cochabamba. Images of Indians, mountains, condors and Tiahuanaco are carved on wooden plaques. In La Paz, carvers specialize in male and female heads.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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