Thursday, February 25, 2021

Native folk art and crafts of Peru

Peru is known for its world-class folk art.

From pre-Inca times to the present day, handmade arts and crafts have provided a visual expression of Peruvian culture. The nation’s skilled artisans have forged one of the most highly developed and diverse folk art traditions in the world, working in a variety of mediums and styles.

Pre-Hispanic designs and symbols often fused with art forms from colonial Spain in works of art as beautiful as they are utilitarian. From quirky masks to complex woven textiles, from hand-painted pottery to intricately carved gourds, from hand-crafted instruments to elaborate wood carvings, Peru’s distinctive handicrafts are an excellent way to bring home an authentic reminder of the country’s vibrant traditions and culture.

This is the first of a two-part story about different kinds of Peruvian handmade crafts.

 Woven Textiles

Hand-woven textiles are an ancient art.

Beautiful hand-woven textiles are among Peru’s most famous native crafts. They’re also among the most ancient: The oldest fabrics discovered in the country date to about 10,000 B.C. Using traditional backstrap or horizontal ground looms just like their ancestors, artisans today weave fibers of prized alpaca and vicuña wool, as well as cotton and linen, into colorful designs that reflect local customs and motifs. Bold, bright designs range from intricate geometric patterns to revered native animals, which show up in yards of fabric that you can buy as tablecloths, table runners, placemats, rugs, tapestries, and blankets.

Alpaca Wool

Highlands people tend their llama flocks.

Hardly anyone leaves Peru without buying something made of alpaca wool such as sweaters, hats, tote bags, super-soft scarves, and traditional ponchos and blankets. After all, these Andean camelids have been a key part of Peruvian life for centuries. Lightweight, breathable, and hypoallergenic, alpaca is insulating and non-itchy. Baby alpaca items, made from the fleece of the first shearing, is supremely soft. Rarer and softer still — with a price tag to match — is the ultrafine wool of wild vicuñas, from which alpacas are descended.

Larry bought an alpaca sweater, and I 
have a soft creamy vest.
But beware: While many products are advertised as 100% baby alpaca, chances are they’re blends of alpaca wool or even synthetic acrylic fibers. If you want to guarantee the real thing, shop at national brands such as Kuna or Sol Alpaca stores where the prices will match the quality. Or buy alpaca in Cusco at the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco, a non-profit collective of hundreds of weavers, or in Arequipa, a thriving textile center.


Colorful yarns are used in hand embroidery on garments and home accents. 

Another millennia-old fabric tradition is hand embroidery, which often served ceremonial purposes in ancient times. Today, it reflects the cultural identity of each region or village, which has its own unique style. You’ll find vibrant, patterned embroidery on local women’s skirts, handbags, men’s vests, jackets, and other traditional garments. Pillowcases with brightly colored floral accents or elaborate wall hangings stitched with scenes from daily life add a pop of color to your home. Known as bordados, these hand-dyed, alpaca-yarn narratives are embroidered on a wool cloth background.

Appliqué Fabric

I have this amazing wall hanging that depicts scenes from 
daily lives of people living on the floating islands of Uros.

Gorgeous wall hangings of another sort are Peru’s distinctive quilted appliqués on cotton fabric called arpilleras (meaning "sackcloth" or "burlap"). These hand-stitched, three-dimensional patchwork panels typically depict pastoral scenes of daily life, such as villages, markets, landscapes, or carnivals. Two biblical themes, Noah’s ark — with requisite llamas— and nativity scenes are also popular. The women who make these elaborate tapestries attach scraps of fabric including vinyl, felt, or straw fibers to the cloth background to tell the stories of their lives.

Wood Carvings

I love this colorful puzzle from Peru.

From religious figurines and masks to portable altars and toys, Peru has a rich wood-carving tradition derived from Spanish religious sculptures and carved furniture made for colonial churches and convents. In Cusco, expert sculptors carve classical religious figures such as the infant Jesus, angels, and Virgins that are often gold-leafed, as well as kings, magicians, dancers, and soldiers. In the town of Molinos, near Huancayo, artisans make a variety of wooden objects from kitchen utensils and toys, painted animals, and mythical beasts. In folklore-rich towns like Paucartambo in the Cusco region and Puno, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, elaborate carved and painted masks of fanciful creatures and stylized characters are produced for popular festival days.


The most remarkable of Peru’s wooden folk art are its unique brightly painted retablos, or small portable altars. Originally used by Spanish priests to teach indigenous people about the Bible, these colorful diorama-like boxes depict everything from intricate religious or historical scenes to simple scenes of everyday life in the Andes. Originating in Ayacucho, the boxes are elaborately hand-painted with typical Ayacucho flower designs adorning their hinged flaps. Inside the boxes, artists fill multiple levels with hand-carved figurines of people, highland animals, and both Christian saints and pre-Columbian gods, a unique blend of religious traditions. Typically, the upper level symbolizes heaven with saints, sacred Andean animals, or nativity scenes, while the lower level portrays life on earth, such as a hat shop, a cantina, or a musical group.

Information courtesy of Angela Tuell, Percepture,

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.


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