Finding Meaning From Design: How a Hand Knit Infant’s Cap Gives Insight Into Andean Culture and Textile Traditions

By: Maggie Walsh

A cold, windy night. A child sleeping in an adobe and straw house with no door. A small, beautifully decorated cap providing warmth and protection from the wind. Then, an economy, a livelihood, based on this basic need for protection from the elements.

What can a small hand knit cap reveal about the culture from which it originates? This hand knit infant’s hat is from Peru, which is located on the western coast of South America, north of Chile, and south of Ecuador. The cap is likely a cousin of the chullo, an iconic Peruvian hat with earflaps (see video below).

 

 

The cap is small and there are images of abstract animals separated by geometric designs around the hat. The main colors of the knitted wool cap are red, blue, black, and white. It is topped with a red tassel. Modern Andean textiles use synthetic dyes, which result in bright and flamboyant colors. This cap’s subdued colors suggest the use of natural dyes.

AE7280_3
Peruvian infant’s cap. The stylized animal towards the bottom of the cap is unique in that it is framed. This frame design may symbolize a protective structure for the animal beneath it, however it may also suggest this was intended to be the front of the cap. Museum number AE7280.

The cap was donated to the New Jersey State Museum (NJSM) in July of 1959 by Mrs. Elizabeth Suverkrop. Although the exact age is unknown, it is estimated the cap was made between 1900-1950. The age of the cap is further supported by the fact that it was evidently not made using modern synthetic dyes. Mrs. Suverkrop’s gift included twenty-five other items from countries including Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Mrs. Suverkrop was married to Edward A. Suverkrop, who was a mining engineer working for John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. Roebling’s was a Trenton based company, but the company’s work took the Suverkrop family all over the world: from Dayton, Ohio, to Chuquicamata, Chile.

The Suverkrops lived in Chile from 1913-1918, and traveled to many South American countries during that period. Their time in South America is presumably when Mrs. Suverkrop collected these artifacts, narrowing the likely age of the hat. Mrs. Suverkrop provided information about each artifact when she gifted her collection to the museum in 1959. Suverkrop listed the cap as from the Peruvian highlands. She also noted that the yarn was homespun and dyed with vegetable dyes.

 

The physical features and collector information are useful, but can the cap can tell us even more about the culture that made and wore it? What is unique about Peruvian textiles? Why is this particular cap special? What sort of world did the child who wore this cap live in?

In order to understand the longstanding significance of textiles to Peru, it is important to turn to the history of textiles in the highland region, back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Inca civilization flourished. Since the Inca, textiles have been a way of life for most communities in the Andes. The beautiful textiles have always served as a source of income and a structure for social behaviors. Women and men both worked with textiles in Inca culture, but it was the women who were expected to be particularly skillful. Textile production was a time for women to teach and socialize; wearing textiles was a source of identity for both males and females.

Natural dyes used in Peruvian textiles were typically black, white, green, yellow, orange, purple, and red; these colors were made using plants, minerals, insects, and molluscs. In Inca culture, colors had significance. Red symbolized conquest and leadership, while black signified birth and death. Abstract geometric designs were popular on Inca textiles. We can see these designs on many of today’s Peruvian textiles, including the NJSM cap’s detailing. The material of the knitted Incan textiles was either cotton or wool; materials still used today. Wool typically came from South American camelids such as llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas that populate the Peruvian highlands. NJSM’s cap is certainly wool, but it is uncertain from what kind of wool the cap was made.

Today, the most noticeable features of Peruvian textiles are the symbols and designs embroidered on each piece. Designs on Peruvian textiles are significant, for they reflect the culture from which they come. Textiles are often decorated with stylized versions of plants or animals such as felines, llamas, snakes, and birds. The condor, a bird believed to be a harbinger of death, is a particularly important animal in Peruvian culture, and is a common motif on textiles. Some of these images are visible on the NJSM cap. The most easily identified are birds and cattle, but we are unsure what all of the figures represent. Peruvian textiles are typically adorned with tassels, beads, shells, and sequins, which we see in the NJSM cap’s red tassel.

Pre-Columbian Andean culture did not develop written records, however, textiles can be considered records for the people of the Andes. Births, marriages, and deaths were often recorded on textiles. Economic records were logged on textiles using knots and agricultural records through symbols and color choices. Today, each group in the Andes has their own distinct style, and while the style of Andean textiles is often generalized, the unique designs of different populations reflect the broad range of creativity as well as differing histories and customs between groups.

Chullo
Penn Museum caps, left to right: 29-76-5 (Bolivia), 29-76-4 (Bolivia), 42-21-151 (Peru, between Cuzco and Bolivia), 8006 (Tarma, Peru).

It is a widely accepted notion that the styles, colors, and symbols of Peruvian textiles are unique to the region from which they come, and so, these elements can be used to trace a textile to the region in which it was made. Unfortunately, this has been surprisingly under-explored academically, and it is therefore difficult to do in practice. The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museumhas South American hats in their collection that were useful to compare the NJSM cap and test this theory. Starting from the left, the first two caps are Bolivian and were reportedly made in the nineteenth century. The third cap is from Peru, specifically from between Cusco and the Bolivian border. It is dated to the early twentieth century. Finally, the fourth cap is in the traditional Peruvian chullo style, but believed to be both newer and of European origin due to the type and color of the yarn.

Note how similar the two Bolivian caps are to one another. Now, consider how the third cap is very similar to the NJSM cap. According to the third cap’s catalog card, the period in which it was made is similar to that of the Peruvian infant’s cap (early-mid 1900s). The colors and symbols used are strikingly similar, and the lack of earflaps is notable, for earflaps seem to have been the more common style. If the aforementioned theory is correct, then, considering unique design elements of the cap, it is likely that the NJSM cap and the Penn Museum cap are from the same region. We can now say that the NJSM cap is also probably from the southeast portion of Peru.

Textiles have been a crucial part of life in Peru, for cultural, practical, and economic purposes. These beautiful textiles tell stories, but they also keep the wearer warm and protected. Much of the child’s life would have been spent outside. She would have slept in an adobe or stone structure with a thatched straw roof. The cap would have been made to keep her head warm and protected from the windy, cold nights in the Andes. This tradition of weaving and wool production has since been integrated into the world economy. In 2014, textile and wool exports accounted for $1.88 billion.  It is both remarkable and understandable that a portion of the economy would be built upon an ordinary part of life. The Andes Peruvians took a demand for protection from the weather, and used the opportunity to make beautiful expressions of their cultural identity.

So, now some light is shed on the original question: what can the cap reveal about the culture from which is originates? The cultural, practical, and economic aspects of life in the Peruvian Andes are represented and brought together in a single, infant’s cap. The symbols, colors, and hand knit quality make the NJSM cap a great example of Peruvian culture and identity.

AE7280
NJSM # AE7280.

References

Ancestry®. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2016. <www.Ancestry.com>.

Heckman, Andrea M. Woven Stories: Andean Textiles and Rituals. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 2003. Print.

“Inca Textiles.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited, 1 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 July 2016. <http://www.ancient.eu/article/791/>.

Joslyn, Catherine (2012) “Representations of Nature in Andean Textiles,” Journal of Global Initiatives: Policy, Pedagogy, Perspective: Vol. 7: No. 2, Article 4.

Zimmern, Nathalie H. Introduction to Peruvian Costume. Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 1941. Web. 10 July 2016. <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b2502105;view=1up;seq=9>.

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