Catherine Vardy – Potosi Ch’ullus
(or how to get engaged to several men at once!)
“Having seen the pictures in Andean Folk Knitting, I knew Potosi had some beautiful ch’ullus (hats) knit with intricate patterns and many colours. We arrived in Potosi on a Sunday afternoon, market day, so I had a few hours to go off in search of my ch’ullus.
I wandered around the stalls, asking every vendor who looked approachable where I could buy yarn or hats. I spent a lot of time walking around and finally found one stall with fine, acrylic yarn. Unfortunately, no hats for sale. I once again asked where I could buy knitted hats and was sent to the area of the market where the animals are sold. In the far corner, I saw about three knitted hats, tied to a post. They were shades of brown and white, huge gauge (about 4 sts per inch) and acrylic. In a word, I hated them and these were for tourists, not knitting “connoisseurs” like myself!
It started to rain and I needed food. As anyone who knows me will attest, I need to eat often or I get crabby. Wanting to pursue my quest for hats with a calm disposition, I stopped for a snack and pondered my next move. I stood there in the centre of the market, in the rain under a tarp, munching on a square of pink gelatin-like dessert stuff (good, but strange). I was stared at a lot, but by now I was used to it as I’m almost a foot taller than everyone else around me in these places.
This is where the fun began. Some porters just said you couldn’t buy them. Others told me about the stall with the nasty acrylic ones. I then persisted and explained I wanted something finer, like what they were wearing. Keep in mind that most of these porters are 16-20 years old males and carry things like furniture and huge flour sacks on their backs for a living. I’m a tall, white, 32 year old gringa and this is attracting a *lot* of attention! People are gathering around us, staring, laughing and are definitely amused.
Well, some of the more enterprising of these young fellows would coyly ask if I liked *their* hat. My answer was always yes, though sometimes after asking to examine it more closely, as they were all mind-bogglingly wonderful. The hats, the hats, you perverts! So, once it was established that they were willing to sell their ch’ullu, the negotiations regarding the price would begin. I was still a newbie to this haggling thing, so I must confess, I decided that a price of 50 bolivianos ($10 US) seemed fair to me and I wasn’t about to spend hours arguing over 20 cent’s difference. Time was a wasting and I wanted to accumulate 15-20 of these works of art in the next hour or so before the market closed.
I didn’t want to take advantage of anyone and I knew that for these porters, this was a lot of money. I also knew I really *needed* some of these hats to come home with me and I didn’t want to insult them and end up empty-handed. So, word spread like wildfire through the market that this crazy gringa was buying hats for 50 bolis. All I had to do was walk around, and make eye contact with a porter and he would ask if I liked his ch’ullu! There were several young porters who kept walking by me, but they were insistent that they wanted 60 bolis for theirs. I held my ground and we kept crossing each other, confirming our prices for another hour or so (I did get their ch’ullus for 50 bolis by the end of the afternoon!). There was also a real “macho” porter who wanted 80 bolis for his. It was superb, but if I paid more for his, then everyone else would have wanted more money as well. He still has his ch’ullu and I still have my pride!
Later, I learned about the engagement part of the story. You see, when a young woman is interested in a man, she steals his ch’ullu as a sign of interest in him as a potential husband. When a young man is interested in a woman, he will give his ch’ullu to a young woman (the women don’t wear ch’ullus). I had wondered why everyone laughed when a young porter refused to take off his hat and give it to me, after I had bought it. He made me take it off his head and there was a lot of nudging and winking going on. Egads! I’m engaged. To sixteen young men in Potosi! It all became crystal clear, after the fact of course!
I managed to collect 16 Potosi ch’ullus in all and am really happy I made the effort. They are beautiful, colourful and very finely knit (16-20 sts per inch!).”
This excerpt is from an article by Catherine Vardy, which was originally published in KNITTERS’ FORUM (Summer ’96), the newsletter of The Knitting Guild of Canada and is reprinted with permission of Catherine Vardy.
Text and images copyright Catherine Vardy