A two-and-a-half-hour boat ride from Puno on Lake Titicaca, itself a day’s bus ride from Cusco, brings you to the remote island of Taquile, whose indigenous Quechua-speaking inhabitants weave and knit some of the finest textiles in the Andes.
Rising more than 700 feet above Titicaca’s vast expanse, this rocky island has been home to its Quechua-speaking community since before the time of the Incas. Ancient ruins on the island date from 1200 CE and pre-Columbian farming terraces are still cultivated. Due to its isolation, the island was one of the last communities of the Inca empire to be brought under control of the Spanish in the sixteenth century. The Spaniards renamed the place Taquile after a prominent Spanish nobleman. Its indigenous name “Intika” is still used by the locals today.
The Taquileñosare subsistence farmers, herders, and (of course) fishermen, raising potatoes, corn, beans, and barley on the ancient terraces dating back to the time of the Inca as well as sheep, guinea pigs, chickens, and pigs. Since the 1970s, they have added income from limited tourism, mostly in the form of day excursions from Puno, almost three hours to the west. Enterprising families have added pretty outdoor dining terraces to their houses to host groups for a traditional lunch and guest rooms for the adventurous overnight visitor. And, of course, visitors are presented with beautiful textiles to buy in the modest market.
The weaving and knitting of textiles, especially the wide woven waistbands (chumpis) and knitted hats (chullos) worn by the men, is an inseparable part of Taquileño culture. Women weave the chumpis and the men knit the chullos. Both are executed to an astounding level of quality. The chumpis are patterned with twelve panels each with different traditional iconography of the seasons, and hence referred to as “calendar waistbands.” Narrower, less spectacular chumpis are worn by the women to support their wide skirts (polleras). The chullos are also knitted with traditional designs important to the culture and the knitter’s family. The color, style, and designs of the chullos change, reflecting major life events and status of the wearer.
These traditional textiles are an integral part of Taquileño courtship, marriage, and family traditions. The ability to knit an outstanding chullo or knit an exquisite chumpi is the mark of a fine life partner. While a couple is allowed to live together for a time to ascertain that they are compatible, before a man is accepted by the woman’s family, he must knit an elaborately-patterned chullo for his prospective father-in-law, who traditionally expects the very best. Often the aspiring son-in-law is required to demonstrate the tightness and quality of his knitting by showing how far he can carry water poured into the inverted chullo without a drop leaking on the ground. If he fails, he must try again. Once betrothed, he knits another fine wedding chullo for himself.
The bride-to-be also weaves her betrothed a fine chumpi, cutting her hair for the first time to use as warp for the first turn of the chumpi around the waist, finishing with a finely-woven wool outer turn adorned with iconography most meaningful to her family woven into the twelve panels. The weaving of this ornate band is so fine, consistent, and tight that the designs are astoundingly crisp and clean. Both the chullo and the chumpi can require months to create ones of the finest quality.
When the children are born, the mother and father pass their weaving and knitting skills down to them, teaching the boys to knit and the girls to weave. A boy’s first chumpi is woven by his mother (she uses her hair) and chullos are knitted by the father for his young children, both boys and girls. But soon his sons must learn to knit their own chullos, the quality of which is important to attract the regard of the girls in the community. And the girls eventually cease wearing the chullo, remaining bare-headed until they marry, when they adopt the black shawl that signifies one’s married status.
While the women’s’ traditional “regular” wear is rather understated, even compared to the men, the fiesta clothes are another matter. Here the women wear elaborately-trimmed jackets and their polleras (skirts) bulge from the large numbers of colorful petticoats that fill and peek from under them. Both men and women add fine embroidered capes and colorful brimmed hats with jaunty upright plumes of multicolored feathers.
On their lovely, wind-swept island well out in spectacular Lake Titicaca, the people of Taquile work hard to preserve their unique culture and way of life. Tourism has brought some changes, but the community exercises considerable control over how it is done and works to ensure that it truly benefits the community. Responsible tourism has brought opportunities to market their unique textiles to the visitors who appreciate them.
Acknowledgments: Jean Miller, for her excellent journal notes of our visit to Taquile in October, 2022.
Further Reading: An excellent article on Taquile from BBC: “Taquile: Where Manliness Is Based on Knitting”