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Feathered Walls: Hangings from Ancient Peru

September 16, 2013–May 12, 2014

Making Feather Panels

Feathered Hanging, 7th–8th century. Peru. Wari. Feathers on cotton, camelid hair. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.475)

Each of the brilliantly colored panels on view in the exhibition was created from thousands of glossy body feathers, individually hand-knotted onto cotton strings and subsequently stitched, in horizontal rows, onto large rectangular plain-weave cotton panels. The feathers used are those of the blue and yellow macaw, a bird native to the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains.

Feathers develop their vibrant coloring as they form within the skin tissue of the bird; both structure and pigmentation play a part. Scientists have determined that the yellow color derives from carotenoid pigments, while the iridescent blue and blue-green shades result from the interaction of melanin pigments and the feather structure itself, which alters light as it passes through or is reflected by the complex three-dimensional surfaces.

Diagram of slip-knotted structure for all-yellow panel (1979.206.475; above). Diagram by Christine Giuntini

To create the all-yellow panel, individual feathers were first attached to two strings using a series of slipped overhand knots. One string was looped around the base of the vane; the other, around the bent shaft. The knots vary in appearance according to how the shaft was inserted into the loop and the knot tightened around the shaft.

Detail of the feathered-string knotting for all-yellow panel (1979.206.475; above)

Feather workers then stitched the feathered strings to a woven support, starting along the bottom edge and continuing to the top in overlapping parallel rows. In the case of a single-color panel, the horizontal rows generally run without interruption from one side to the other, while in multi-color panels, the strings are cut at every color change along the vertical axis, confirming that ancient feather workers followed a predetermined design based on an established palette of monochromatic feathered strings.