past & present

Textile Connections: Shipibo Textiles from Peru

by Grace Bonney

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One of the most interesting and important conversations happening right now in the design community is the discussion of cultural appropriation. There have been some fascinating and enlightening debates online and in person at various events across the county and the feedback continues online where, on sites like this, people make sure we stay on top of topics that require more information, deeper research and understanding.

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When it comes to understanding the cultural roots of any design detail, I find it’s helpful to start at the beginning with the history of an object, style or technique. That concept was the basis of our Past & Present column, and inspires a new column starting today with Harper Poe of Proud Mary. Harper travels the world in search of more understanding of the roots of textile design, so I’m thrilled to share her first of many posts here on the history of some of the most iconic textile designs. Today we’re starting with the textiles of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe of the Peruvian Amazon and Harper will tell us more about their work, the significance of the textiles and how they’re made (and where to find authentic examples of them now). Stay tuned for more posts in coming weeks!

More about Harper: Harper Poe was born with a serious case of wanderlust. Always looking to experience something for the first time she decided to incorporate her lust for discovery into a social enterprise, Proud Mary. Harper scours the globe in search of traditional textiles and handcrafts which she then employs global artisans to create for Western markets. She is equally inspired by the ideas of economic development, craft preservation, and the celebration of beauty, which she pridefully shares with her customers and clients.

Textile photographs above by Kelly Merchant Photography

Textiles are on my mind the majority of every day. Researching new techniques and producing groups for Proud Mary, following up on our current textile production, and pouring over textiles images that pop up on my social media channels- my life is pretty much textile-obsessed. But those handcrafted, patterned pieces that we covet can (and should) be more than just a pretty piece; they can be a tool towards economic development and provide important cultural preservation. Textiles share the stories of a culture in a way, I believe, that no other craft form does. Fresh from a trip to Peru I thought I would share one of my favorite global textiles; cotton painted and embroidered textiles from the Shipibo-Conibo tribe of the Peruvian Amazon.

The Shipibo are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Peruvian Amazon. They are located along the Ucayali River in the Amazonian rainforest. This tribe has more or less maintained their tribal identity and still practice their shamanic traditions and beliefs. One of which is the Ayahuasca ceremony. Ayahuasca is a shamanic hallucinogen from native plants from the Amazonian rainforest. The purpose of Ayahuasca is to return to the origin of all things, where the individual sees the creation of the universe. A shaman will transform the visuals into sound which the female artists will translate in the geometric patterns and designs painted and embroidered in the Shipibo textiles (and ceramics). The designs that the women come up with are a representation of the universe often depicting the Cosmic Serpent, the Anaconda, the great Mother, and creator of the universe. Whoa! As far out a concept as the Shipibo textiles are their geometric patterns take on an almost modern, digital aesthetic. -Harper


How they’re produced:

-The designs are done on natural un-dyed cotton or on cotton dyed with mahogany bark giving it a brown color.
-They paint using bamboo sticks and crushed berry fruits that turn blue-brown-black once exposed to air. They also use cotton to embroider the distinct patterns onto the cloth.

About the patterns:

The designs and patterns are created by women after listening to songs of a shaman, which are often inspired and influenced by the use of ayahuasca. Each design starts in the center (representing the physical world) and spreads out, portraying a map of the cosmos. The cross shape represents the Southern Cross Constellation. The extending shapes represent the movement of the Anaconda serpent that Shipibo people believe created the universe. The serpent was said to, “sing all forms into existence at the time of creation”.


Where you can find authentic examples of these textiles:

Prism of Threads
Artesania las Pallas, Lima
1st Dibs
Santa Fe Folk Art Market

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  • This is incredible, it’s so amazing to know the history behind these textiles. I am so happy that D*S is touching on the topic of appropriation. As an interior designer now textile designer this is something I’ve been thinking about constantly since the textiles I design are handwoven in my native country of Ethiopia.

    It’s encouraging to to see people like Harper and others that truly embrace and share the culture of the origin country. I am looking forward to the rest of this series!

  • I think that this is a really important issue — and it’s great to see it being discussed. There’s a really big difference between inspiration and appropriation and it’s important for people to understand the deep significance of textiles in many different cultures around the world. For example in First Nations Salish weaving, the right to weave is handed down as part of family lineage – if you don’t possess the lineage or specifc permission, you may not weave these designs. As an example – the Hudsons Bay Company experienced a backlash when they knocked off traditional Cowichan sweaters in their stores during the Vancouver Olympics (http://www.canada.com/story.html?id=c0cfb93e-18ea-47e0-b7a4-d21a9aa9d0d0).

    The history of textiles runs deep in so many cultures around the world – cloth is a metaphor for the connectedness of society, it is used to consolidate social relations and mobilize political power and carries important symbolic and spiritual associations. It’s such a great thing to see textile traditions kept alive with organisations like Proud Mary who talk about the history and meaning. So much more than beautiful patterns, I think a textile become even more interesting when the story behind it is uncovered.

    There’s a fantastic article on appropriation versus appreciation on Refinery 29 http://www.refinery29.com/cultural-appropriation. It’s a great read and really speaks to the issues touched on here.

  • Thank you, Grace, for posting about this topic. I’ve followed D*S for years (even back when it was on blogspot!) and have to say that I’ve grown increasingly wary and agitated by blatant cultural appropriation in the design world–which has been occasionally reflected even here on this site. That you are taking this seriously and posting about it is a huge relief for me.

    I’ve actually been tempted to comment before on certain things that hit home for me, as a Middle Eastern woman, in terms of appropriation. For example, I’ve wanted to comment about jewelry makers and home goods designers who use the evil eye in their work–that they sell for profit–when its not evident that they are Middle Eastern (or South American, where the concept is also prevalent) and they don’t address the significance of the symbol or why they use it. Elsewhere, I’ve noticed retailers (coughZara…cough) are using Arab embroidery or other textile patterns on their products, totally ripping off my culture, and then selling them as “ethnic embroidered jacket,” etc. Even using national symbols on shorty shorts!!

    Anyway…rant over. I just wanted to thank you for drawing attention to this, and I hope there is more critical examination of trendy design motifs that have origins in indigenous cultures. Thanks!!!

  • I am in awe of the techniques, origins and materials used to produced such gorgeous textiles! I am originally from Lima, Peru. I haven’t been to Ucayali and hope to visit my own country very soon! This column is brilliant! Thank you for disseminating such important and great cultural content. Ursula @ http://Kraftmint.com {lovely quick craft }

  • This column is an excellent addition to Design Sponge. I look forward to reading more of them.

  • There is also a settlement of Shipibo people who were displaced by Shining Path violence in the 80s and 90s now living in pretty dire conditions in Lima – and fighting for their rights as indigenous people to be respected even though they were forced to live in a non-traditional part of the country. They still manage to produce some of their traditional textiles for their own use and for sale to support their community. I have a collection of their pieces as well as some bought directly from the artisans in Iquitos. On another random note, I just realized this is the Harper I shared a taxi with a few months ago in Chiapas, Mexico. Very cool to see her featured here!