Saturday, August 30, 2008

P is for Peru

PperuPeru is a land of two cultures, where colonial heritage and creole culture thrive by the sea, and where earflaps (as imitated at left), Quechua, camelids, Incan ruins, and textiles thrive in the highlands & mountains. Peruvian knitting owes much to both cultures, as the process was a European import, but it has long since taken on a remarkable, independent life of its own. Although the Spanish brought needles and knitting techniques to Peru, knitting found a ready audience in a culture already rich in textile design and production. Over the succeeding centuries, Quechuan culture appropriated knitting and added its own spectacular innovations. Because national borders don’t control cultural boundaries, I’m focusing this post on Andean knitting in general, so I will touch on Bolivian as well as Peruvian knitting.

Chullo2I’m convinced that some of the most astonishing, technically brilliant, inspired knitting today is being produced by Andean knitters. Although individual composition and innovation is highly valued, tradition holds strong and allows us to trace a few common elements. First and perhaps most distinctive: although Peruvian and Bolivian knitting is widely practiced by both sexes, Andean men are the primary knitters. In many communities, knitting is much more likely to be done by men than by women. In areas such as Taquile (an island on Lake Titicaca), men knit almost obsessively from a very early age, and often on hats (ch’ullu, ch’ullo, chullo) that are subtly designed to reveal information about the maker or wearer. On Taquile Island, for instance, men wear hats with conical white tops to indicate they are single. Creating an elaborate, well-crafted hat is a signpost in a boy’s life, and young men take great pride in the degree of color and design complexity they can achieve in their “single man’s” chullo. Children learn to spin yarn at four or five, and are quite accomplished at producing fine yarns by the time they are knitting up extraordinary hats at the age of 7 or 8. Women, by the way, are traditionally in charge of dyeing.

Chullo5The chullo is the most ubiquitous knitted garment, but Andean knitters also make arm bands, leggings, ruffled caps (for young girls), and whimsical bags in the shape of people and animals. Other hallmarks of Peruvian knitting include a very, very fine gauge (somewhere between 9 and 15 stitches to the inch) and tightly-spun yarns, which make the fabric fairly self-confident (i.e., stiff). When resorted to, commercial yarns (including acrylic) are re-spun for a finer, tighter material. Needles are very fine—between 1.35 mm and 2 mm—and the almost mythical story is evidently true: some Andean knitters sharpen bicycle spokes for needles. Knitting in the round on four needles, color work is generally done via purling on the far side of the work with yarn tensioned around the neck (great explanation here, from Avital).

LeCount_coverMuch of the information about Andean knitting that I am conveying here comes from Cynthia Gravelle LeCount’s book, Andean Folk Knitting: Traditions and Techniques from Peru and Bolivia, 1990. Full of incredibly detailed accounts of individual knitting designs, techniques, and regional traditions, her thorough research is fascinating and meticulously illustrated. Although out of print, it is available at many libraries and through interlibrary loan. When copies of the book come up for sale on Internet auction sites, they go for $100 and up (check the link above for sale prices and the link in the bibliography section, below, for copies available in libraries near you). In addition to the rich content and illustrations (some photographic, some hand-drawn), LeCount includes a nice bibliography of sources on Andean textiles and anthropology.

Alpaca3Alpacas: who can’t love them?
Camelids abound in the high altitudes of the Andes. They contribute their wool to the skilled Andean drop-spinners, as do sheep. Although llamas are shorn, alpacas have softer fiber and are much more likely to be the source for yarn. Recently (as noted earlier), some acrylic yarns are making their way into Andean knitting, especially those that have been dyed in neon colors. But alpaca fiber is the mainstay of Andean yarn and alpacas are constant companions for the alpine spinners and knitters. And who couldn’t adore the alpaca? They are somewhat timid (although not so shy as the ultimate fiber-producing camelid, the vicuña, a wild, endangered inhabitant of the Andean mountains that can only be shorn every three years for its exquisite fur), the alpaca has been domesticated for a very, very long time, and appears in artwork of the Moche people (CE 100 to 800). Its cuteness, I suppose, is because at 36 inches (91 cm.), it looks like a small version of the llama (it is not, actually—unlike llamas, alpacas are not pack animals). Other endearing features include their constant humming, herding tendencies, poodle-like fur, enormous eyes, and mop-top hairdo (alpacas are way cuter than the Beatles ever were). More alpaca facts, courtesy of Cedar Brook Alpacas.

Chullo4Design My favorite part! I was completely delighted to learn that written messages regularly appear in Andean chullos and bags. Because they are knit at such a fine gauge, the letters can be (and are) robust (by which I mean that they are not spidery, one-stitch stick figures), several stitches-wide (often including serifs), and messages are long, often running from top to bottom across three or four pattern bands and including poetic sentiments. Initials, dates, general statements of ownership, even the marking of particular celebrations are often recorded in written letters on Andean hats. In particular, writing appears regularly on hats of the Ccatca (Qatqa’a) region of Peru.

Chullo1Chullos often feature tiered motif bands, stripes, and diagonal or diamond-shaped patterns (even OXOs!) that move up and off the head in a conical shape and usually in very bright colors. Animal and human motifs abound, especially snakes, foxes, felines, eagles and the viscacha (a large rodent, cousin to the chinchilla). Surface decoration is also important, so that shells, beads and buttons are often sewn onto the earflaps, which is the part of the chullo that is most visible (men usually wear felt hats on top of their chullos). Bright, multi-colored tassles appear on top and dangle from earflaps.
chullo_ribWith so many distinctive design traditions to choose from, I found it difficult to stick to just one, so I tried to make this chullo a composite of several. I started with the concepts of the earflapped chullo and lettering and expanded from there. In keeping with tradition, I included a message in one of the bands, and designed my own alphabet and message for the recipient. I am trying to write this up into a pattern, but that’s going to take time. I’d like to include a complete alphabet for those interested in writing out their own messages and at this point, it exists on graph paper, not in electronic form. Also, my knitting is unusual in that my vertical gauge is quite compact (more rows per inch than most knitters) and loose (smaller needles), so I’m going to have to figure out how to compensate for that. Very generally, here are the elements: I modeled the ribbing on the checkerboard style found throughout the Andes. There are three colors per row; I stranded the two not in use across the back. The ribbing tension is about 9 stitches to the inch, which makes the band a bit tighter than the rest of the hat (at about 8 stitches per inch). Animal designs are a fox with tail dipped in milk, a griffin, based on models graphed by LeCount from designs of the Potosí department and CalaCala (both in Bolivia), and snakes. Earflap style is modeled on that of the southern Cuzco department (Peru; although I used a variant shaping technique to better foreground the monogram). Each flap features an initial of the hat’s intended wearer. I found the hat shaping somewhat difficult as I tried to work in motifs and shape. It should really be conical, not domed.

Chullo3Materials: I used the ultra soft, ultra cloud-like, Ultra Alpaca Light from Berroco, which is half super-fine alpaca, half Peruvian highland wool. Each skein is 1.75 oz/50 grams and 144 yds/133 m. Berroco recommends a gauge of 5.75 sts to the inch, although in keeping with Andean tradition, I knit it at a smaller gauge for a firmer fabric. Not quite able to manage the 10+ stitches per inch regularly achieved by Andean knitters, I went for 8 stitches to the inch. Berroco recommends 23 sts & 36 rows to 4 inches (10 cm) on 3.75 mm needles.

Here are the pattern and charts:
P-chullo, pt. 1 (pattern)
P-chullo, pt. 2 (first alphabet chart)
P-chullo, pt. 3 (second alphabet chart, for earflaps; includes ampersand & question mark)

I will have to stop here, because this topic could keep me going for many more moons, and I do need to move on to Q. I’m open to suggestions for Q, by the way!

Andean Knitting Bib
Museums & Cultural Institutions

Knitting in the Andes
  • Lolly (Lauren Weinhold)’s fabulous blog post about traveling to Peru in search of knitting (Aug. 2007)
  • Margaret Brown’s travel log with great pictures of Andean men knitting (July 2007):
  • Very informative article by Catherine Vardy, originally published in Knitters’ Forum (Summer 1996), the newsletter of The Knitting Guild of Canada.
  • Andean Earflap Hat by Mary Jane Mucklestone, originally published in Interweave Knits, Winter 2005. Now available free via pdf. The document includes seven different earflapped hats!
A discussion of Peruvian chullo hats is underway in Ravelry’s “Stranded” Group, where various members have made reference to the following chullo patterns:
Other stuff

If you don’t have time to knit one
  • Chullos for sale from Alpaca Nation, a “marketplace for the alpaca industry — alpaca breeders, alpaca products and services.”
Flickr pictures of Andean knitting & knitters in action
(since I’ve never been to Latin America, I have none of my own to offer, but here are some wonderful examples from Flickr; use links below to see details and creators)
1. Retrato_de_hombre_con_chullo, 2. Handknit Chullo, 3. Peru, 4. CUSCO, un niño de los Andes, 5. Knitting, 6. Knitting at the Gate, 7. Knitter of Taquile, 8. Peru Knitting 1, 9. Man knitting hat on Taquile Island

Pictures of alpacas from Flickr
(Alpaca Mosaic—none of them, alas, mine, but follow the links below to see more from the individual photographers)
1. Quechua Woman & Alpaca, 2. ALPACA / MACHU PICCHU / PERÚ, 3. Baby Alpaca, 4. ALPACA - Ollantaytambo, Peru (II), 5. P4162139, 6. tina? (Peru), 7. The Alpaca Emperor, 8. Andean Women and Alpacas, 9. Baby cholita e baby alpaca

Saturday, August 2, 2008

O is for OXO

OoxoOXO. Not Oxo, as in the beef bouillon cubes (although they play a small part in the story), but OXO, as in OXOXOXOXO, a time-honored combination of knitting & letters; as in Ohs & Crosses, a traditional, ubiquitous Fair Isle pattern repeat.

mosaicoxoThe pattern is really a combination of lozenge shapes (Os), joined together with diagonal stripes (Xs)—which is why it’s OXO and not XOX. It is really a combination of lozenge shapes with diagonal joining devices, and is common throughout textile traditions. Rug makers, weavers, beaders, all draw liberally upon the lozenge shape. So, too, do designers of parquetry, roof tilers, ceramic painters and many more. OXO appears in mosaics, too (as in the example from the Zeugma site, now in the Gaziantep Archaeological Museum in Turkey, above. Roman, first to third centuries AD). I’m convinced there are many synergies between mosaic design and knitting, but will try to explore that more fully through a later letter.

turkweaveThe OXO motif is found throughout the world for many reasons (as in the Turkish machine-woven fabric at left), but the simplest explanation is its infallible, practical logic. Lozenges with adjoining devices offer a very convenient way to carry out color changes—odd-numbered repeats are easy to remember, easy to improvise upon, easy to calculate. Diagonals shift by one on every new row, expanding or contracting the shape, bringing the diagonals in while widening the lozenges, or vice versa. Color changes can thus occur at convenient intervals so that there is no need for weaving in long floats. Lozenge shapes allow space for simple interior design motifs, such as the flower (or pie!) shape I chose (within the letter “O,” above).

ronaoxoAlice Starmore has written more than anyone else I have read on the meaning of the hand-knitted OXO pattern to Shetland Island knitters and its possible sources. She has found an interesting relationship between the variant lozenge shapes found in Shetland knitting and designs for milk churning handles in the Hebrides and northern Scotland. Starmore is adamant, however, that the Xs do not refer in any way to crosses; “Can Fair Isle patterns really be attributed to such religious, mystical or symbolic origins? I think not. Although the Fair Islanders were certainly religious, they were first and foremost a practical people who led difficult lives in harsh conditions.” (Starmore. Fair Isle Knitting; 12-13.) I’m not sure how or when religious symbolism became impractical, but I can believe that if it was a factor at one point, it is quite secularized by now. The Greek letter, chi (Χ), after all was for centuries—and still is—the symbol for Christ and Christianity. And yet, the X or cross does appear in plenty of non-Christian patterning. The design, above & right, is a detail from Rona, one of Starmore’s designs from In the Hebrides, and a prime example of a 25-row OXO pattern repeat.

fairisleoxo4Exactly when Fair Isle knitters began to call this combination of design elements OXO is unclear, but the name dates at least to the early part of the twentieth century. Anne Feitelson explains that British knitters began calling this design element OXO only after the release of OXO cubes in Britain (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Liebig Extract of Meat company first used the word Oxo to brand its low-cost meat extract in 1899; concentrated bouillon cubes arrived a few years later). Since Feitelson doesn’t cite a source for the Oxo foods connection, I assume the story stems from local tradition of the Shetland islands. The design at left is a swatch for Alice Starmore’s Roscalie waistcoat.

fairisleoxoI used this letter to explore OXO and to try out some new color combinations. I’m going for a summer’s evening look: bright, hot colors against a dark, bluish backdrop, but the colors aren’t quite there yet. At this point, it’s just a sketch; just another entry in the abecedarium & book-o-letters.

fairisleoxo2In the past several years, the OXO cable has become popular. It appears to refer more directly to another combination of Xs and Os: XOXO, or hugs & kisses, but it looks great in yarn, too.

oxoswatchesOXO Bib
Other OXO Resources

rughatOXO Patterns

kilimOXO means a lot of other things, too...
  • in chemistry: an atom of oxygen sandwiched between two other atoms
  • in British rhyming slang: the underground (tube; it rhymes with cube, as in OXO cube)
  • in Dublin slang: all right or O.K.
  • Naughts & crosses”, of 1952, was the first computer game
  • The makers of OXO Foods brought us the OXO Tower in London.
  • kilimpillow
  • OXO Tower in Flickr
  • Sam Farber, owner of OXO International, settled on the name OXO because, “whether it’s horizontal, vertical, upside down or backwards, it always reads ‘OXO.’” The company won a Cooper-Hewitt design honor for its swivel peeler this year.

fairisleoxo3Strange, but true: the OXO bedroom set.