A Tricky Stitch from the Peruvian Highlands

One of my favorite Andean textiles is the humble potato sack, or costal. It’s deeply traditional, handsome, and almost indestructible. I first saw costales in use when I visited the very high village of Accha Alta in 2005. The area is known for the best and most varied potatoes, but the terrain is so steep that growing them requires some special considerations.

trickystitch
A woven costal from Accha Alta, Peru. Photo by Joe Coca from Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands.

For instance, the handle of the hoe (kuti) used to dig trenches for planting is often no more than a foot long. You can see how this would be helpful if you were facing a field that rose right up in front of your face! And then there’s the harvest. Most Andean highland communities have adopted the ubiquitous blue plastic feed sack for taking their potatoes to market. But in Accha Alta, if you load potatoes into a plastic sack, they might just slide down the side of the mountain. And the sack will weather and crack and rip over time.

trickystitch
llamas carrying costales filled with potatoes in the highlands of Peru. Photo by A. Tim Wells from Weaving in the Peruvian Highlands.

Not so the costal, a sturdy, thick twill-weave fabric using handspun alpaca (including the tough outer fibers). These are woven on backstrap looms by the men of Accha Alta. (The width and heft of the cloth require a lot of muscle.) They are woven to the perfect size to hold fifty pounds of potatoes, the most a llama can comfortably carry on the way to market. 

trickystitch
The beauty and integrity of handspun costales, woven here by Simeon Guiterrez of Accha Alta, honor the precious harvests that they contain. Photo by Joe Coca from Faces of Tradition: Weaving Elders of the Andes.

My favorite part of the costal, though, is the seam that holds the bag together. You might not notice it right away; it’s not decorative, just seriously burly and interesting. The stitch is called kumpay. It looks like a row of knit stitches marching down the side of the bag. I picked around on one of my costales trying to solve the problem of how it was done, but didn’t really get it until we published Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands and watched it executed with speed and skill by the pros. Turns out it is not difficult, just very clever and appropriate for its use.

trickystitch
The kumpay stitch worked on a replica of the Ice Maiden manta. Photo by Joe Coca from Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands.

The same stitch, somewhat elaborated, is used as a decorative edge treatment on the manta, or shawl, that was found on the famous Ice Maiden mummy high in an Andean glacier. Kumpay is one of dozens of ingenious tricks that are second nature to our Quechua sisters and brothers. They’ve generously shared their know-how in Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands, which you can have for your very own. On sale right here. Let us send you one.

—Linda

Learn how to do the tricky stitch of kumpay and other Andean textile techniques in Secrets of Spinning, Weaving, and Knitting in the Peruvian Highlands and other treasured books about the textile of Peru.