Inka checkerboard tunics

It is thought that these tunics were made for soldiers and the checkered pattern camouflaged them into an indistinguishable mass.

Checkerboard tunics, Inka, camelid fiber, first tunic: c. 1400–1540, 88.3 x 80 cm (Dallas Museum of Art), second tunic: 16th century, 87 x 76.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), both in the Golden Kingdoms exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Additional resources

Checkerboard tunic at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Checkerboard tunic at the Dallas Museum of Art

Learn more about Andean textiles from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, from The Met

Read about another Inka tunic, the All-T’oqapu Tunic


Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”tunicsinka,”]

More Smarthistory images…

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re standing in front of two large, stunning Inka tunics.

Dr. Sarahh Scher: [0:12] Textiles were the fabric of the empire.

Dr. Zucker: [0:15] Textiles were tightly controlled. Fine textiles were often made out of wool that came from camelids.

Dr. Scher: [0:21] For the Inka ruler himself, the Sapa Inka, it might be from the wild vicuña or from the guanaco. The most common is the alpaca, which is the softest and the most easily obtainable.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] At least for the ruler, because ownership of these animals was strictly controlled.

Dr. Scher: [0:37] The production of textiles takes place on several different levels and very much embodies the way that the Inka controlled the state. Individual people might be able to harvest from their camelids a certain amount of wool.

[0:51] They would make some fabric for themselves but they would also be obligated to donate some of the fiber or spun thread in taxes.

[0:59] You also had, at the very upper end, what were called the acllas. They were women who were taken by the Inka state, kept cloistered, and taught to weave the finest of textiles. They became the weavers for the state.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] Weaving was integral to the hierarchical structure of the society.

Dr. Scher: [1:19] There were laws in the empire that people could not choose to wear whatever they want. They had to wear the clothing of the place that they were from and that was suitable to their station in life.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] We believe that these were tunics that were worn by soldiers.

Dr. Scher: [1:34] That is something that we have some historical basis for. There is something about the way that they look as well that seems to lend themselves to be a good design for this use. They are on the bottom decorated with a black-and-white checkerboard that gives way at the top to a bright red yoke.

[1:53] When you look at them as a pair, you can start to see what happens when you place multiple tunics next to each other. You get a camouflage effect. You start to have a breaking up of contours, and so you can try to imagine an entire army of men wearing these identical tunics. You can’t tell how many of them there are.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] At first glance, it seems as if these squares have been painted. But when you look closely, you realize that this is all woven.

Dr. Scher: [2:20] These kinds of textiles were woven as a single piece. They would have been created on the loom. The gap for the head would have been made in the process of weaving, and then the piece would’ve been folded over and sewn together at the sides to create the tunic itself.

[2:36] It’s woven from extremely fine threads. You have a bright white, you have a deep black, and you have a rich red. The bright white would have come from the finest white alpacas. The black is probably from black alpaca wool that has then been overdyed to make it darker.

[2:56] The red is cochineal. It comes from the dried bodies of insects that live as parasites on cactus. It takes an incredible number of them to make even a small batch of dye, but what you get is this rich, deep crimson that lasts.

Dr. Zucker: [3:11] The alternation of black and white squares against the red is powerful. There’s an energy that is produced. But it also reminds me of the stepped architecture throughout so much of the Peruvian region.

Dr. Scher: [3:22] The way that the Inka created their stonework and their architecture was usually to take irregularly shaped blocks and to fit them together. However, when you look at the highest-status structures, what you start to find is standardized-shaped blocks in regular courses, and that’s what we see here.

[3:39] You also have the fact that by dressing each warrior in this tunic you create a unit that then fits into a greater whole, so it does work within this idea of the organization of architecture.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] I noticed that even the edging is beautifully done. There’s a lovely zigzag that creates a border at the bottom of the tunic, and the edging itself is embroidery.

Dr. Scher: [4:01] The empire is investing in its warriors by creating these high-quality pieces.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] These are in incredibly good condition considering their age.

Dr. Scher: [4:10] It is frequently because of coastal conditions that we have a lot of these pieces. They were pieces that had come to the coast as part of the Inka conquest and had ended up in burials in those areas. They were preserved because of the dryness of the coast.

[4:26] Weaving was important to the Inka. The idea that, as something is being woven, life is being given to it, that it has a certain spiritual existence. Something like this is more than just clothing. It is something that is.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Sarahh Scher and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Inka checkerboard tunics," in Smarthistory, October 4, 2022, accessed May 20, 2024,