Inca cloth played an important role in both the social and economic foundations of the empire. According to Morris and von Hagen in The Inka Empire and its Andean Origins, cloth production was, after agriculture, the second largest industry in the Inca Empire. Cloth production was also directly linked to social stratification. Members of society were only allowed to wear Inca clothing befitting their social status, with the quality of the original cloth determining the eventual wearer.
Coarse Inca Cloth – Chusi
The coarsest grade of Inca cloth was called chusi (sometimes written as cosi). Chusi was generally not worn, but used for basic household items such as blankets, rugs and sacking. “Individual threads used in this type of cloth were said to sometimes be as thick as a finger,” says Gordon Francis McEwan in The Incas: New Perspectives.
Standard Inca Cloth – Ahuasca
The next grade of Inca weaving was known as ahuasca (or auasca). Of all the ancient Peruvian textiles, this was the grade most commonly used in the production of Inca clothing. Ahuasca was made from llama or alpaca wool and had a much higher thread count (approximately 120 threads per inch) than that found in chusi cloth.
Thick garments made from ahuasca were worn as standard amongst the lower-classes of the Andean highlands, while lighter cotton clothing was produced on the warmer coastal lowlands. Peruvian Pima cotton, as used by the Incas, is still regarded as one of the finest cottons available on today’s market.
Ancient Peruvian Textiles of the Inca Nobility & Royalty – Cumpi
The finest Inca textiles were reserved for the Inca nobility and the emperor himself (indeed, a man of noble birth could only wear such finery if given to him by the emperor, the Sapa Inca). This cloth, known as cumpi (sometimes cumbi or qompi), was of exceptionally high quality and required a specialized and state-run body of dedicated workers.
According to Gordon Francis McEwan, cumpi cloth was produced in state-run institutions called aclla wasi. Here, chosen women dedicated their lives to weaving clothes for the emperor and for use in religious ceremonies and sacrifices. A full-time body of male weavers, the cumpi camayoc, produced cumpi cloth for the state.
Cumpi was made from the finest materials available to the Inca. Alpaca, particularly baby alpaca, and vicuña wool were used to create elaborate and richly decorated items for the emperor. Even more extravagant items were made from vampire bat hair and hummingbird down. Remarkably, the finest Inca cloth had a thread count of more than 500 threads per inch, higher than that found in cotemporaneous European textiles.
- Gordon Francis McEwan – The Incas: New Perspectives, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
- Craig Morris and Adriana Von Hagen – The Inka Empire and its Andean Origins, Abbeville Press, 1993.
- Terence N. D’Altroy – The Incas, Blackwell Publishing, 2002.
- Charles C. Mann – “Native Ingenuity”; “The Boston Globe”; September 4, 2005, Third Edition.
- Michael Andrew Malpass – Daily Life in the Inca Empire, Greenwood Publishing, 1996.