South America

South American yarn crafts - where nature and art come together



           Typical symbols and depiction of nature in a piece of weaving from the South Americas.


     Just as scandinavian motifs reflected regional traditions, symbology (often Norse), and the flora and fauna which surrounded them, both as inspiration and as natural dye stuffs for their wool,  so the fabulous slightly naieve designs of South American knitted and woven textiles are very much a product of their own cultures and natural environment. To begin with we can look at the major fibres which are used to create their actual yarns. Probably best known to knitters, (apart from cotton which as we know loves the warmer areas of the south) are the fibres we get from the camelid family. Most will have heard of llamas and alpacas, and some the less common but wonderfully soft-fleeced vicuna which in  terms of cost makes cashmere look like a budget option.  As with the scandinavian sheep breeds, a wide range of natural colours can be obtained from these animals without dying the wool.


            From thousands of years BC however the various indigenous tribes of this varied continent used the local flora and fauna to introduce the bright strong colours of their rocks, animals and birds, and of course the sky, using everything from riverbed clays to crushed berries to increase their colour palette. All of these sources became not only their dye stuffs but also the inspiration for the woven and knitted designs themselves.  Below is a fragment of very old weaving using the natural fleece shades of the camelids and depicting what I am told are probably llamas but could equally be irritated geese!


            More modern patterns have a huge range of colours, and depictions of other common everyday objects like pots and vases (I even saw an aeroplane once) have appeared in the   patterns used for everything from the traditional huilpa, a sort of cross between a kaftan and a poncho to the brightly coloured hats beloved by anyone who knows just how cold areas like the Andes can become. After all there are some tremendously high mountains in some South American countries, why do you think their indigenous animals have such lush coats?  Here we have a typical depiction of a bird integrated in simple stripes of colour plus repeating rows of smaller motifs. These repeating 'border' designs will often contain not just simple graphics of flora and fauna, but can also be rich in what, at first sight seem to be abstract geometric designs but are actually traditional symbols. The meaning of a few of them are as follows.

The advantage of both the stylised natural motifs and the symbolic borders is how easily they can be charted for knitters, weavers and needleworkers to use.


      You only have to look in an atlas to see just how huge and how varied the terrain of South America is, ranging from massive mangrove swamps and rainforest to glaciers and mountain peaks so high they are rarely if ever free of snow.  From fabulous beaches to the most barren uplands indigenous tribes first created art and textiles which reflected their immediate environment, and then as the years and improved travel introduced other influences so a more generalised homogeneous 'look' developed, particularly in the textiles sold to tourists. The more isolated the tribes the more distinct their patterns, and when lifestyles are very specific (for example a community reliant on hunting and fishing rather than agriculture) these traditional designs can be very similar to those of other similar societies which is why there are strong resemblances between some South American designs and those from Africa and produced also by Native American or First Nation tribal cultures.

There are a lot of patterns for Chullas (traditional hats), gloves  and other items inspired by this delightful design culture, both Ravelry and Pinterest being great sources. For pure inspiration (though maybe not for this weather), I have been drooling over the following board (others in our review section).  Just copy and paste into your browser and take a look at what a very talented modern designer produces when inspired by the cultures and patterns of the past.

      As with Scandinavian knitting, the designs of South America and their influences are a massive subject and I have only brushed the surface with this short article. A list of resources (Wikipedia is particularly detailed about the different areas of South America and their textile traditions) can be found in our resource section accessed from the first page of the newsletter.
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