Imagining the Healing Process through Manual Practices: The Arpillera Experience in Peruvian Communities

Can collective healing processes be manifested through creative activities? If so, how might we envision this taking place? The meticulous curation of the Social Threads exhibition challenges viewers to reconsider how communities have organized visual productions to convey a sense of autonomy and collectivity.

To further explore this idea, let us observe the healing process through four pieces that are featured in the exhibition, and examine how their artistic techniques can serve as potential healing processes for the artists themselves. By focusing on the material tools used to create these images, we can engage our senses and deepen our understanding of the artistic process. It is worth noting that traditional Western Art History has historically undervalued textile productions as mere manual artifacts that lack artistic and intellectual relevance. This has created a false dichotomy between what is considered valuable art and what is deemed a valueless artifact.

Delving deeper into this discussion, we see that markers of difference, such as gender, sexuality, race, and class, are further evidence of discrimination and exclusion. Analyzing the markers present in this exhibition, we can observe how Latin women incorporate elements of their daily lives in the making of the pictorial textiles while using ancestral knowledge of sewing, layering fabrics and textures, embroidery, and other manual techniques to register common and daily practices of the people of Peru. Moreover, these complex visual materials confront the violence that these women, along with other marginalized populations, were subjected to during moments of political conflict in the country. Through sewing, they establish a way to reaffirm their struggle and existence, while visually recording the history of their people. This visual practice also serves as a form of healing, during political conflicts that involve extreme physical and psychological violence, the act of sewing these memories strengthens these women and their communities and helps them not forget their roots and to disseminate their struggles and pains in their own country and abroad. The artists who have produced these materials are not just creators, but also attentive observers, bringing frames of their daily lives into their artistic practices as a means of healing traumas and preserving memories.

A more general observation of the panels displayed in this exhibition, shows us common activities in Peru, such as sowing seeds, or carrying plants, fruits, and other products to a flea market. There is also a lively scene of people in a circus setting. The designs, elaborated through diverse yarns, represent sites, people, and activities in communal relations, highlighting the daily life of communities in Peru. In some of the panels scenes with feminine figures engaged in commercial practices using manual materials and food. All the narratives composing these panels have emphasized fabric colors, textures, and sewing, bringing a three-dimensional representation of the dynamic environment of a Mercado. This Spanish and Portuguese word can be translated as a flea market, a place of intense circulation of people, knowledge, and supplies.

Fabric square with scene of figures harvesting vegetables. The foreground and background are two dimensional, while the human figures and vegetables are three dimensional. The scene includes a house, a tree, flowers, and two mountain peaks partially hiding the sun. The word “MERCADO” is stitched in the upper left corner of the sky.
Arpillera, Artist not recorded,Peru,1973-2000, Cotton and acrylic; appliquéd,
7.5 x 7.5 x .75 in. Gift of Karen Jenson & Dr. Reginald III Rutherford, 2007.01.21
Fabric square with brown, blue, and pink paneled background. Several human figures, vegetables, baskets, and textiles are dimensionally crafted out of thread and fabric.
Arpillera, Artist not recorded, Peru, 1973–2000, Cotton, acrylic, and straw; appliquéd
18.5 x 17.58 in. Gift of Karen Jenson & Dr. Reginald III Rutherford, 2007.01.018

A flea market is a place where sellers and buyers can communicate and do all kinds of exchanges that becomes part of their common language and understanding as a community. Furthermore, the experience of being in a flea market is enriching and diverse, connecting people within the space and the landscape that composes the market. Both the flow of the flea market and the sense of community are represented in the designs of these embroideries. Through the embroidery process, the artists create narratives about their daily lives as a way to overcome traumas they have experienced, which are intensified by political violence. The healing process becomes materialized through the embroidery process, as it allows the artists to visually document memorable moments of happiness and positive collective practices.

For example, the embroidery process has been used by women from communities in Chile and Peru to heal from traumatic experiences. These embroideries serve as a way to document and process these experiences while also preserving and celebrating their cultural heritage. The process of creating the Mercado environment through embroidery demonstrates how collective practices and memories can be connected through visual art. By engaging in this creative process, the artists are able to transcend their individual traumas and create a collective healing experience. However, arpilleras and their healing quality for communities, especially in Chile where it originates, in other places for instance in Peru can also document memorable moments of happiness.

Arpillera (are-pea-air-uhs, meaning burlap in Spanish) is a three-dimensional appliqué technique that has been used by collectives in Latin America, many of which are composed of women. The technique involves using burlap and other fabric scraps to create colorful and intricate patterns that depict daily narratives. Arpilleristas, the artists who create arpilleras, often use their artistic knowledge to create these works of art. Originally created in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, arpilleras were used as a visual tool to denounce and materialize the traumatic experience of violence imposed on people during that period. The embroidery materials subverted the censorship premise of silence, allowing women to express their intentions visually and communicate their messages out loud.  People going missing and historical documents being erased was the day-to-day reality in Chilean society, and the arpilleras were a way to denounce these actions and externalized the traumatic situation by producing embroideries.

In the Peruvian context, arpilleras also serve as visual documentation and denunciation of the extreme violence that occurred in the country from 1980 to 2000, known as the “people’s war,” a period marked by horrific military actions that resulted in the death of over 30,000 people. The violence experienced during this period has left the population with traumatic memories, both physical and mental. But this textile art has also been and still is a way for the community to externalize the ongoing conflicts and sew together the different strands of their daily lives, such as the dynamic of the flea market. Women have played a crucial role in using embroidery as a tool to communicate the political circumstances of Peru. This technique has recently gained more symbolic significance in the sense of community built through collective practices and materials. Producing embroideries collectively serves as a way to heal a community that has experienced similar trauma and sees these practices as a form of externalizing a collective trauma resulting from the structural political circumstances, such as the violence perpetrated by the Peruvian government.

Fabric square with a yellow circus tent spanning across the top horizontally. Under the tent, several figures watch clowns perform and a woman riding an elephant. In the sky above the tent, "CIRCO" is embroidered in orange thread.
Arpillera, Artist not recorded
Peru, 1973-2000, Cotton and acrylic; appliquéd, 7.5 x 7.5 x .75 in.
Gift of Karen Jenson & Dr. Reginald III Rutherford, 2007.01.019

Workshops served as the main gathering places for groups of women to produce these particular textiles, where they practiced the artistic technique using a variety of threads to add three-dimensionality to the appliqué. The production of arpilleras has also gained recognition in places such as museums, galleries, and private collections, leading to greater visibility of this artwork. However, it is important to note that the sale of arpilleras serves as a source of income for the families of the arpilleristas and contributes to their economic empowerment. While the profit margin is low, the financial return from the sales helps support their livelihoods. Regarding the four small arpilleras on display in the exhibition, we can observe the intricate narratives of the Mercado and circus environments that reflect the experiences of Peruvian women. These narratives extend beyond the traumatic government violations and instead highlight positive memories that were overshadowed by the violence. The arpilleras showcase the visual potential of these communities and celebrate their feminine strength.

The arpilleras have been a powerful visual tool for communities in Latin America to express the government’s violence. Through their embroidery, women from these communities in countries like Chile and Peru document not only their traumatic and violent experiences but also the moments of joy and collective happiness. Moreover, the Peruvian arpilleristas and the audience can collectively imagine and take action toward possibilities of change to prevent human rights violations that create vulnerable situations. Textiles and manual arts have always been an integral part of art history, and the arpilleras technique highlights the importance of their artistic expression. They unfold the layers of violence and atrocities committed by the Peruvian government. Therefore, it is important to carefully observe all the arpilleras and textile pieces displayed in this exhibition and imagine the healing processes embedded in these visual productions.


Doolan, Elizabeth. 2016. “Textiles of Change: How Arpilleras Can Expand Traditional Definitions of Records.” InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies 12 (1).


Mirella Maria is a visual artist and researcher currently pursuing a doctoral degree at UW-Madison. She has been studying textile arts for the past ten years, with a particular focus on the collaborative productions created within communities and collectives. Her research interests include the use of textiles as a form of visual expression, the role of women in textile art, and the ways in which art can be used to address social and political issues. Mirella is dedicated to promoting the value of textile arts and their impact on society.