Fleece Crafts in Andean Cultures
Domesticated llama and alpaca species are raised commercially
To purchase handmade Andean garments during one’s Ecuador tours, travel to Patagonia or anywhere in between is to learn about the history and cultural values of a people, a perspective dulled by the machine-made properties of most clothing tourists buy at home. Long before the Incas, indigenous populations crafted garments from the fleece of the plentiful camelid species of South America. Alpaca is an Aymara word. Llama, vicuna and guanaco come from the Inca’s Quechuan language.
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In the Andes, gender roles in the knitting and weaving professions vary by culture and village. In some communities, as visitors who travel to Lake Titicaca will observe, the weavers are primarily men. Travelers on Machu Picchu tours who visit the hill town of Huilloc will see the woolen handicrafts of women. In many communities, the whole family learns to knit, often using bicycle spokes for needles. Children usually gain proficiency by age ten. This family occupation is a valued segment of the indigenous economy, passed down through generations.
The spinning of camelid fleece into yarn is ubiquitous in Andean cultures. Visitors on Peru tours in these mountainous villages will see first-hand the ingenuity and efficiency of those involved in these trades. Held under the spinner’s arm or tucked into clothing, the fleece is twirled into yarn on a small spindle. This step is accomplished while tending flocks, walking home from work or chatting with friends. It is also common to see villagers knitting throughout the day between high-activity seasons such as planting or the harvest.
The yarns, colors and patterns of alpaca handicrafts in the Andean countries vary geographically and culturally. Designs, some with special meaning, may depict flora, fauna and human figures. A dog motif knitted into a satchel is meant to prevent the money one may be carrying from being stolen. The chakana, the Inca cross, is a common design. Some designs show where a knitter is from or where the item was made. When the yarn is twisted in a certain way, in some villages, there is a belief that it can ward off evil spirits. This is why visitors during their travel to Peru in the Andes may see yarn worn around the wrist or ankle of pregnant women or church statuary.
Some patterns knitted into a woolen item have mythical meanings, of Gods, rebirth and what is sacred about the natural world. Visitors on Peru tours may be thinking about aesthetics as they pour over knitwear designs in a village market, but to local consumers, the zigzags or wavy lines may represent a passage in life’s voyage, its beginning or its end. In ancient times, knitted symbols were a form of prayer.
To learn more about the textile patterns of items made of alpaca before the beginning of your Peru tours or travel to Ecuador, Chile or Argentina, read Marcia Lewandowski’s 2005 book, Andean Folk Knits: Great Designs from Peru, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador & Bolivia. To learn about what the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco is doing to preserve the country’s indigenous weaving traditions go to www.incas.org.