Women in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia knit colorful purses and bags in every shape imaginable. Since they hold coins (monedas in Spanish), the purses are called monederos. In the late 1800s, little purses in the shape of llamas, bulls, fish, birds, and people complete with detailed clothing were common, especially among wealthy women. Over a hundred years ago, Andean women used tiny knitted purses made of fine silk or vicuña thread to hold the small gold coins in use at the time. A wealthy woman wanting to impress her guests might greet them at the front door wrapped in a shawl, carrying a rosary, and holding a superbly detailed purse in her hand, as an object of status and pride. Outdated coins, punched with a hole for attaching, embellish many of the knitted bags.
People living in the countryside eventually began to make and use slightly larger knit (or woven) pouches made of sheep’s wool to hold coca leaves or magic charms. In many parts of the Andes, it’s possible to see women carrying money and coca leaves in purses shaped like llamas or dogs. These shapes are knitted in the round with double-pointed needles, with stitches put on holders for the four legs. Then the stitches are picked up for the neck and head in one direction, and for the legs in the opposite direction. Then the knitter continues making a tube, decreasing down to the paws or hooves at the feet. Eyelet holes are worked near the top of the purse and a cord is woven through to gather up the opening. Women roll up the purse with the coins and tie it tightly with the cord; then they stick it in their waistband or bosom for safekeeping.
Knit-in patterns often decorate simple versions of rectangular purses. These more utilitarian bags are also used as dance accessories at Carnival and other festivals. A group of festival dancers called the llameradas (llama herders) always have two or more coin-covered knitted bags hanging from their skirt waistbands. The coins jingle a bit and add to the glitz of the dance steps.
The tradition of knitted purses continues today but the work is often done in durable synthetic yarns with two colors, such as royal blue and black, or red and black. Sometimes the knitter works her name and a significant date or an adage into her bag; I have one purse with a line about bittersweet love! It’s possible to find these two-color acrylic yarn purses in the markets of La Paz and other towns in Bolivia.
(Editors note: Contemporary versions of monederos are typically offered for bid at our annual ATA auction held each fall. )
Top image: Two purses. (Left) Llama-shaped purse. Maker unknown. Knitted. Handspun alpaca. Potosi Department, Bolivia. Mid-twentieth century. 9½ inches (24.1 cm) tall. Collection of the author. (Right) Llama-shaped purse with coins attached. Maker unknown. Knitted and embroidered. Handspun sheep’s wool. Bolivia. Late nineteenth to early twentieth century. 4 inches (10.2 cm) tall. Collection of the author. Photos by Joe Coca; courtesy PieceWork magazine.
Cynthia LeCount Samaké has an MA in art history from UC Davis, California and has been guest curator for museum exhibitions of Andean knitting and Carnival costume. She taught world textiles for many years in the Design Department at UC Davis. Twenty-five years ago she founded Behind the Scenes Adventures, organizing textile tours to far-flung parts of the world to share her love of knitting, weaving, and festivals.