Do you know anything about Andean chullu knitting?

I mentioned chullu knitting on the spin-list, and was asked for a little more information. Here’s my reply, and a repost of something from 2005 about learning to do it, with pictures.

The Question and Reply

I’d like to know more about the Chullus you mentioned. Do you know how they are “knitted differently”?

In fact I do. 😉 The basics are that they’re stranded colourwork with 3 and sometimes 4 strands carried and secured with sort of a braid methodology between stitches; the “working side” that you look at is the purl side, and all the work is purled. All the strands are carried around the neck and tensioned that way. I’m told it’s similar to an old Arabic knitting technique, and it’s believed to have made its way to Peru via the Spanish at the time of conquest. They are knitted bottom-up, starting with a rather complicated braided cast-on and typically a zig-zag pointed edging. Traditional patterns are the weaving patterns, but worked horizontally rather than vertically and sometimes with some variations as well.

Are those the “bowler” type hats?

They’re the pointed earflap hats. The form factor is very popular and is often used in hats that are knitted via more European means, but the traditional Andean chullu (sometimes spelled chullo) is a form of knitting that came very close to disappearing in most regions. It’s a significantly steeper learning curve than other forms of knitting, and demands weaverly yarn-management hand knowledge in order to perform with any reasonable rate of speed. A skilled chullu knitter can make on in about 2-3 nights, or one really really long day. They’re knit with the smallest metal needles that can be found (the yarn is small), and the needles are often made from bicycle spokes.

Really interested in the knitting technique, and more about the tightly spun yarn that is used to make them.

The yarn is simply Andean weaving yarn. It’s a 2-ply yarn, spun and plied very very tightly; so tightly that European and US textile traditions view it as hopelessly overspun, both in the spin and the ply. When I learned about it a couple of years ago, we weren’t able on short notice to find small enough needles to work with my stash of Peruvian weaving yarn, so my example was done on size 2 needles with some baby yarn or another that I had lying around.

Part 1

Years and years and years ago, before kindergarten and all, before I spoke Spanish or Quechua, I made friends with a girl — or she made friends with me — even though at the time, we had no language in common. Because when you’re a kid, you don’t need that, and it comes eventually. She was a little older than me and she could talk me into anything. We got older and learned lots of things together, competing with each other to show off our spinning and weaving skills, chasing her family’s sheep around when taking them out to pasture, walking several km to school when it was schooltime… and then I’d go back to the US, and have no friends to play with and no yarn stuff competition with my peers and all that. Then I’d go back to Peru again and there would be my friend, just like before, and we’d pick right up where we left off. I remember being in 3rd grade and thinking about my friend and saying that it was like we were part of the same pattern, except she was the one in Peru and I was the one from the US and so someday, it was going to be nice to have her come where I lived and that would make everything balance out right. She was a lot more competent and accomplished than I was, and quicker, and stronger, and faster, and she kicked my butt at pretty much everything. I had all kinds of chances and opportunities and stuff that she didn’t — just by chance, and all, because I happened to have been born in the US and whatnot.

We got older and stuff, and somewhat more serious and somber in our competitiveness. Eventually we were teenage peers. She could still talk me into anything. I was an inch taller than her. She was way better at math and could do more things at one time than I could. When the woman who was like a grandmother to me died of pneumonia and we walked to her burial in a cold, steady rain, we shared her heavy shawl and I sobbed on her shoulder and she caught me when I slipped and almost fell into the graveyard mud. She had a ewe that bled to death lambing out on a terrace, and we took turns carrying the bloody little lamb back to her house and tried to save him, but he eventually died anyway. Her mother and my mother have the same name. She was as much a daddy’s girl as I was. But she worked harder and did more things than me, and she did them better. I knew we’d be friends forever and she’d always edge me out on pretty much everything. I never grudged her that, or envied her, or anything. She deserved everything in the world and she worked for it all.

But, one day back in the US, I learned she had just died of typhoid at seventeen. In some respects I still haven’t come to grips with the fact that she died and I lived. In my heart of hearts I think I still feel like it’s the most unfair thing I have ever personally been party to in any way. Oh, there’s other stuff that’s up there or tops it for heartbreak, but it’s not as unfair as her dying so young. Her death is the one and only thing I’ve never been able to think about and say “Yeah, but you know, tragedies happen and life isn’t fair, just deal.” I mean I deal, and always have, but I still think, UNFAIR.

My Peruvian godmother once told me that, so long as you can in any way cry a tear for a person who’s dead and gone, you owe that person a debt. It took me a while to think of what debt I might owe my dead friend Angelica and eventually I concluded that, among many other things, I owed it to her to live a worthy life. Because, you see, I got to keep mine and she didn’t. And if it would have been me in her shoes… well it couldn’t have been, really, because white American girls from Ivy League families don’t die of dehydration while recovering from typhoid in a third-world hospital. She even might not have died if she’d gotten sick while we were there. For my whole adult life I have lived with that, without ever a week going by but that I think of her, and wonder what she’d be doing if she were still alive.

Well, time passes. She had a little sister named Carolina. I never knew Carolina well — she was several years younger, and she didn’t spend so much time running around with the kids our age. She was a kid sister, just like I had. But you know… as time passes and people grow up, it’s funny. She looks a lot like her older sister looked, but she’s a bit shorter. She’s doing a lot of the stuff I think her big sister would have done. And right now, she’s in the US and I get to have her stay with me for a few days… like I always thought her sister someday would do. I’m so glad she can come hang out with me and my family and know what my life here is like. She is here in the US studying English and doing some lectures and demonstrations about weaving, for CTTC.

I never learned how to START a chullu, the Peruvian hat, only how to continue one once started, and *that* was 25 years ago. So, since Carolina was going to be working on hers last night I pleaded with her to show me how to start one. And it’s pesky! Which is why you don’t have an 8-year-old start it! 😉 I was never anywhere near as interested in knitting as weaving, so… I can’t say I tried very hard to learn it before, either. But now, I must achieve victory over starting the chullu! Even if this one is a small example fella and not a real one.

Part 2

More work on the chullu knitting last night — which is actually a coin purse type object, so as to be small.


Cutij Kh’eswa

Inside. See? No floats at all, up to 3 colours carried at a time, this tactic is the real meat of this style of knitting… except, so’s the cast-on. And understanding Andean patterns… and knowing how to work with yarn under tension and… well anyway. My mission now is to increase sufficiently that I can do Jakaku Sisan. And that will probably be coin purse sized, so that’ll probably get followed by another cutij-kh’eswa and raki-raki, if I know anything at all about the RULES.

Also, again I vow, the next one of these I make is not going to be sport weight floppy superwash wool. No. It will be high-twist 2-ply handspun.

The finished pouch!

Shown with small pockets (sort of like glove fingers) which will be obscured by the fringe when that’s done being applied.

Totally Unrelated

And also, this being the date that it is… happy birthday, Ed, you’d have been 62 and I still miss you every day and extra on your birthday.

5 thoughts on “Do you know anything about Andean chullu knitting?

  1. What a wonderful life you had with your friend and how she has influenced your life forever. You are surely blessed.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.


  2. Abby, what a tragic and beautiful story. Yes, beautiful in all it’s tragedy, as life itself.

    Do you know about this book:

    LeCount, Cynthia Gravelle.
    Title Andean folk knitting : traditions and techniques from Peru and Bolivia / by Cynthia Gravelle LeCount ; with photographs and drawings by the author ; foreword by Loren McIntyre.
    Publisher Saint Paul, Minn. : Dos Tejedoras Fiber Arts Publications, c1993.
    It has very good description of how to start and make chullu, though adapted somehow to the american knitter technique.


  3. Hey Abby,

    You’ll be writing a whole bunch of articles about chullu knitting (and how to do it) for the knitting wiki, won’t you?

    And I’m not just asking because I’m obsessed with hats or anything…


  4. It’s bitterweet that Carolina is able to share a small part of your US life. Thank you for sharing so eloquently the intertwining of your soul friend.

    The chullu is very intriquing. This type of knitting appeals to me, maybe because I was first a weaver it has more of my heart than knitting.

  5. Oh, Abby, what a sad story. To lose someone who you expected to continue to live and grow with at the age of 17. I have never had it happen to anybody I was really close to from childhood so I can only imagine the whole in the place where memories of her would be.

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