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Knitting in New World: South America

Much like North America, the knitting of South America is influenced by both the native populations and the immigrants that settled there. Native peoples wove together the methods introduced by immigrants with their own traditional techniques, motifs, and styles. Spanish and Portuguese sailors began to arrive in the mid-1500s bringing their knitting methods with them.


A map of South America surrounded by coral yarn, thin double pointed knitting needles, a knit cap from Ecuador, and a wood instrument shapped like a coqui frog.

Knitting in the Andes is of particular interest. The Andean knit cap is called the ch’ullu. It plays a vital role in traditional Taquile society. The color of the hat denotes whether a man is married or unmarried, the side the tip is worn shows mood, and the quality of work demonstrates whether or not a man would be a hardworking and reliable husband.


Rather than being worked on the knit side, the ch’ullu is purled in the round on five thin needles that are hooked on one end. These needles were traditionally made of cactus spines or fish bones, but are now often fashioned out of bicycle spokes. Tension is kept by wrapping the yarn around the back of the neck. Traditionally, yarn made from llamas, alpacas, and vicunas was used. In modern times, brightly colored tightly twisted acrylic yarns are preferred.


A collection of brightly colored alpaca yarn

Knitted animal-shaped coin purses, socks, ceremonial masks, sleeves, and leggings are also commonly knit items in South America. Bright colorwork, including a form of intarsia, is greatly favored and frequently used in these items. Not every area of South America uses the purled, neck tensioned method described for the ch’ullu. Some areas, such as Guatemala, use the more familiar knit method. It seems that different regions in Spain and Portugal used different knitting methods, influencing the native populations.


Next month, I will take some time to see how knitting has grown with the advent of mechanical knitting and the modern age.


Sources

Knitting Around the World: A multistranded history of a time-honored tradition by Lela Nargi

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