There’s a long, and fascinating, tradition of textile production in Peru. Despite the fragility of natural fibres, a remarkable number of pieces of fabric have been preserved, mostly in tombs in the coastal deserts.
Everybody (rightly) makes a big deal of all of the pre-Columbian jewellery in gold, silver, turquoise, and spondylus shell, but I think the sheer investment of time and effort in a lot of these textiles is perhaps more amazing. It’s worth noting that, when the Conquistadors arrived, they were given gifts of textiles, not metal.
The richest fabrics are incredibly finely woven, with up to 300 wefts per inch (so maybe a modern 500 thread count, or higher). This translates into an incredible amount of yarn to be spun: many thousands of yards of a single garment. If we consider that the Sapa Inca wore only the finest clothes, and that they were burned after having been worn once, then there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people working full time just to produce his clothes.
Eve Fisher, here and here, estimates that a medieval shirt, woven at 25 wefts per inch, would take over 500 person-hours to make, most of which is spinning the thread. If we assume that the Sapa Inca’s clothes took ten times this amount of thread, that gives us no less than two-and-a-half person years per outfit - so over 900 people working full time to produce an outfit per day.
Pieces from the Amano textile museum
Inca citizens all had to pay a tax, or mit’a, by working for the state. This could mean building or maintaining roads and bridges, producing raw wool or cotton, or weaving. Parenthetically, the Spaniards kept the same name for their system of forced labour, where every man had to work one year in seven, often in hideous conditions in the Potosí silver mine or the Huancavelica mercury mine. This paper looks at household income and children’s heights in modern Peru, and finds that districts within the mining mita’s catchment area are some 25% poorer today, and have a higher proportion of unusually short children.