There is a rare and ancient weaving technique that allows a weaver to create a finished piece of cloth that can be removed from the loom without ever cutting a thread. Known as four-selvaged weaving, samples of this technique were first seen in the Andes Mountains of Peru and date back to 500–100 BCE. The intended purpose—be it a ritual cloth, garment, coca bag, or blanket—must have been known and planned for before the weaver placed the first thread.
As an artist and educator working in handweaving, I find this technique fascinating because it points to some of the earliest examples of textiles that completely integrate form and function. Two thousand years later, fashion designer Issey Miyake would employ a similar approach with his collection A-POC (an acronym for “a piece of cloth,” 1997–2001).
Today, we see many young American artists taking up a similar technique, weaving on their laps with small, portable frame looms. The resurgence is likely tethered to the DIY movement, but is also a response to the Bard Graduate Center’s 2006 exhibition of Sheila Hicks’s small-scale works, Weaving as Metaphor. Hicks, who encountered pre-Columbian textiles firsthand while traveling to Peru on a Fulbright scholarship in 1957–58, has created hundreds of small-scale four-selvaged weavings, all feeling like a unique page torn from her sketchbook.
Currently on view at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions surveys historic examples from the early Chavin and Paracas cultures (500–100 BCE) to the Inca Empire (1485–1532) alongside contemporary works from Hicks, weaver Jim Bassler, and filmmaker John Cohen. Seeing these textiles side by side reminds me that while textiles have advanced in innumerable ways since pre-Columbian times, contemporary work is still very much in dialogue with innovations of generations past.
Christy Matson is a Los Angeles–based artist and professor, working with handweaving and all manner of textile-related processes.
The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions is on view through February 2, 2014, at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, Los Angeles.
Images: Photography by Don Cole, courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.