Contributed by Catherine K. Hunter
Warps, warp-face, wefts, weft-face, ikat or jaspe, brocade, coiling, twining, plaiting—these technical terms come from the language of weaving. For students in Therese Zemlin’s art class, an exploration of weaving was motivation for a tour of collections at the Peabody Museum in April and May 2016 with research associate Catherine Hunter. The themes were textiles of Guatemala and Peru, and Native American baskets.
Weaving involves the interlacing of two elements: warp and weft. The loom supports vertical elements or yarns (warps) under tension. Then, weaving is the process of interlacing horizontal elements (wefts) side-to-side perpendicular to the warps. The weaver manipulates the colors and density of the warp or weft, making the potential for new designs endless.
Forty items were selected from the museum’s collection of 400+ 20th century Guatemalan textiles and back-strap looms, and ancient Peruvian textiles. The majority were blouses called huipiles, assembled from several parallel lengths of cloth. Among the Maya distinctive traditional designs have been associated with specific villages. Communities consistently favor bright colors with beautiful sophisticated geometric and zoomorphic designs.
From an inventory of 350 19th-20th century Native American baskets, 20 were chosen to represent the cultural preferences of five geographic regions. This tradition is acknowledged as the finest expression of its type, setting the standard for anyone who studies baskets as art. The basic techniques are coiling, twining and plaiting.
There is remarkable ingenuity in the variety of plants and trees discovered for basketry materials, including ash splints, river cane, pine needles, roots, grasses, and red cedar. Harvesting and processing of materials was a time-consuming community activity with an appreciation of seasonal and sustainable practices.
There is amazing vitality in the forms of baskets including bowls, jars, rectangles, cones, trays, and plaques. Fascinating objects in themselves, it is all the more interesting to know their uses include food gathering, cooking (in water tight baskets), water bottles, seed bottles, pictorial trays illustrating mythology, feather-covered gift baskets, hats, and forms targeting the interest of tourists.
Both traditions—Guatemalan weaving and Native American basketry— continue today as a source of cultural pride for communities and as professions for artists.
Catherine K. Hunter is an independent museum consultant whose career began in the Department of Textiles at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She began an inventory of the Peabody Museum’s basket collection in November 2015 and will complete the project in summer 2016.