Boro: The Japanese Art of Mending That is Hard to Find in Japan

On my recent trip to Japan, I found art where I didn’t expect it, yet didn’t find the art I expected to see everywhere.

Boro, the Japanese art of mending, and its twin art of Sashiko (decorative stitching), are very popular among textile artists in the West. Many non-Japanese artists throughout the world, myself included, now incorporate the art of patching and restorative hand-stitching into their work.

I made this journal cover, for example, using some simple Boro-style patching and stitching:

Nowadays, clothing using some elements of Boro and Sashiko are making a comeback into the world of high-end fashion. Boro-style items are selling for hundreds of dollars. Original antique Japanese pieces of patched cloth can go for thousands of dollars.

It was only natural, therefore, that, before going to Japan, I assumed I will see Boro everywhere. That did not turn out to be the case.

When we arrived in Japan, we had only one day in Tokyo before heading out to other destinations. I vaguely knew there was a museum dedicated to Boro in Tokyo, but assumed there would be many such museums in other parts of the country, too. We therefore used the few hours we had in the capital to visit other sites. I later realized, that one of them was painfully close to the museum…

Sadly, for the duration of our subsequent nearly month-long trip, I did not come across any other Boro museums, nor could I find any on the internet. Not only that, but I haven’t seen Boro anywhere. I didn’t see it in any of the numerous big and small museums we visited, including several crafts museums. Nor in gallerias, tourist shops or artisan villages. Certainly not on the streets, on any of the thousands of well-dressed Japanese we encountered.

Only in our very last stop, in the tourist-oriented part of the old capital of Nara, did I see a hint of Boro. It appeared on the outfits of two delightful Oni (=demons) that decorated (or maybe guarded?) a high-end clothing boutique:

(Despite what the sign says, I did ask–and received–explicit permission to take pictures of these dolls :-))

On the same street, by the way, I also found the only artist atelier that sold patterns and clothing using Sashiko:

So, why isn’t Boro more prominent in Japan, it’s birth place, despite being so popular in the West?

I believe the answer is that Boro was the child of poverty, and as such is still associated with destitution in Japan.

The imperial family and the upper classes never wore patched clothing. They cloaked themselves in expensive silks and exquisite textiles. The lower classes, on the other hand, not only could not afford silk, but, in the Edo Period (1600-1868) were actually banned from wearing it.

The poor could barely afford even the cheaper fabrics, which were still expensive. They had to make the rare garments they had last long. When clothes or blankets started wearing thin, they had no choice but to mend them with any bits and pieces they could put their hands on. Winters in Japan are cold. Poor families had to make do with what they had, passing valuable patched garments from one member of the family to another, sometimes from one generation to the next.

The people who created Boro didn’t use silks and high-end textiles. They used the cheaper hemp, linens and, later, cottons that were available to the working class and the poor. Most of the fabrics they had came in shades of indigo. This is why we now associate Boro with that color.

The word “Boro” itself means “tattered” or “ragged.” Wearing Boro-ed clothes wasn’t the result of aesthetics. It was a necessity. And as such it marked the wearer as a member of the lower, poor classes.

Japanese today don’t wear Boro (unless they can afford some of its high-end, modern-day manifestations). Museums don’t show it because it’s not a traditional art form that the culture is proud of. Modern artisans are more likely to practice Sashiko or Shibori (textile dyeing), which they see as more “artistic.” And so, although Boro is all the hype among textile artists and consumers in the West, it is mostly absent in its homeland.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t appreciate it. The authentic, old Boro clothing were made over a long period of time, and were often a collaborative effort. People added patches and stitches whenever they needed to fix something. Sometimes a garment passed through several hands and even several generations, with many people adding to it. And even the poor did their best to mend beautifully, resulting in artistic stitching. Many of these old garments are, indeed, works of art, even if their makers didn’t see them as such.

This jacket, which I found on pinterest, is but one example:

If you’re interested in Boro and are planning to visit Japan, do go to the only Boro museum in the country. If the rumors I heard are correct, you should hurry, as the museum might be shutting down soon… I now know that you can also find Boro in flee markets throughout the country. Regrettably, I didn’t get to visit any, but perhaps you will have better luck!

Street Art in Japan (And It’s Not What You Think!)

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you probably know that I love finding street art wherever I go. I’ve discovered some pretty cool art in London, Quito, Bern, and Tel Aviv, to name some. So it was only natural that I kept an eye out for street art on our latest trip to Japan earlier this summer, too.

When we got to Japan, however, I quickly realized that we have arrived at the cleanest place I’ve ever seen. Yep. It was cleaner than Peru. And even cleaner than Switzerland, which is very hard to beat. Graffiti? Not in Japan! I can only imagine what would happen to anyone who dared try: the poor artistic soul would be attacked by civilized citizens and then fined or arrested by the police. A fleet of elderly ladies would immediately appear on the scene of the crime, armed with sponges and soap, to wipe the abomination right off the face of the earth…  Nope. No graffiti in Japan. Anywhere. Period. And we’ve been to many places…

But on our second day in the Land of the Rising Sun, while visiting the city of Matsumoto, I happened to look down, of all places, and realized that Japan had another kind of street art, one that I haven’t noticed anywhere else before.

It actually had art built right into the street!

Do you recall walking down a street and stepping over manholes? Did you ever even look at manholes covers, or notice them? No? Neither did I. Ever. Until I went to Japan.

Because, as I was walking down one of Matsumoto’s streets, I happened to step over the most beautiful manhole cover I have ever seen. It was elaborate and beautifully painted in many different color. This manhole cover had local symbols all over it. It certainly got my attention!

After that, I started looking. I noticed there were different kinds of manhole covers, for different utilities (water, electricity, sewer and so on), each with its own pattern. When we traveled from one place to the next, I noticed that manhole covers were different in each district or municipality. Someone, somewhere, has been paying a lot of attention to designing these manhole covers. Even the simplest among them were beautiful, symmetrical works of art. Manhole covers in Japan are aesthetic. They are meant to be noticed. They beautify the streets, and they are bursting with local pride.

I started taking pictures of manhole covers and collecting them wherever I went. The kids enjoyed helping me, and pointed them out whenever I missed one. It became a fun game for us all!

Here are some of the simpler ones, collected from all over the kingdom (and yes, some are upside down):

There were a few rectangular ones every now and then, too. Like this one. And they were no less beautiful:

Some were a little more elaborate, with a bit of color added:

Then there were the local declarations of pride, beautifully designed with local symbols, often local flora and fauna, and historic sites:

The most beautiful of all were the colored ones. Those must have had tourists in mind, because many of them included place names in English:

(You’d notice the bottom picture on the right is twisted. I couldn’t for the life of me get the computer to turn it, so just turn your head. It depicts a man rowing a boat).

So, start opening your eyes when you walk down a street! you never know what you’ll find. And if you happen to visit Japan, definitely look down at your feet. You’ll discover that Japanese civil engineers and city planner are actually artists, too!

Who Said That Getting Back Into Routine Is Easy?

My husband always teases me because I think in school years instead of calendar years. Perhaps it’s because the Jewish New Year closely coincides with the beginning of school. Or maybe because I’ve been in school so long myself, immediately followed by having kids in school. Whatever the reason, although it’s only August, it feels to me like a new year has just begun.

And what a busy beginning it has been!

Our summer was packed, with lots of traveling, hosting, and family time. But as it drew to an end, the realities of daily life began sinking in. The mess in the house really got to me. The neglect in the garden was overwhelming, too. I just HAD to do something about those before I could even think of getting back to my art!

I started with the house. The kids helped, as I wrote in my previous post. We conquered the mess. I was looking forward to getting back to my fabrics when school starts. It didn’t quite happen that way.

I love gardening, as you might already know. Over the last couple of years, however, I enjoyed sewing more. I’ve been doing minimum garden maintenance, but none of the detailed work that a garden requires. A few months ago, probably as a result of extreme weather conditions, a couple of our trees died. When we got back home from traveling, I realized that a third was on its way out, too. I called a tree-removal company and had these trees removed. This left my garden bare and my flower beds stomped. When the kids went back to school, therefore, I went on a garden clean-up-and-planting frenzy.

A garden, you see, is like a canvas, over which you can paint with plants and flowers. After the trees were removed, I found myself, unexpectedly, with parts of the canvas blank. Worse than blank: Ruined! This bothered me a great deal.

Over the last couple of weeks, therefore, I visited nurseries, scouted plants, bought seedlings and even mail-ordered some.

I thought of color schemes, textures, seasonal effects and year-long interest. I worked long days weeding and digging, deep-pruning and planting, moving things around and watering. It was physically exhausting, but felt really good!

Well, if you don’t take the itch into account. Because here is something you might not know about me: I’m allergic to many plants! I need to garden dressed in a hazmat suit (sort of), and even then I itch so badly that I often have to take antihistamines… A small price to pay, though!

I usually try to compost every bit of organic matter that comes out of my garden. There was so much debris this time, however, that I had no choice but to put it in the city composting bins.

I must have filled eleven or twelve of those in less than three weeks (yes, the neighbors were nice enough to let me use theirs, too!).

I’m not quite done yet, but the garden is in much better shape than it was when I started. Which meant that a couple of days ago I could sneak into my sewing room and immerse myself in textiles! I noticed some pieces I started before the summer break, and am excited about getting back to them…

Yesterday, I finally turned my machine back on, for a little while!

Of course, this is Labor Day Weekend, and there’s already no school on Monday. But I know what I’ll be doing first thing on Tuesday 🙂

I guess getting back into routine just takes time, sometimes…

Ambivalent on the Last Day of the Summer Vacation

Today is the last day of the summer vacation. The kids are sprawled around the house, lazily going about their own business. It’s our last day to get up late, stay in pajamas until well after mid-day, not have to be anywhere particular at a specific time…

All this will change on Monday. We’ll be back to early wake ups, rushed breakfasts and hurried school drop-offs. Homework will start accumulating again, requests for school volunteering will start coming, along with demands for driving to play-dates and after-school activities. In other words, we’ll be back on the rat-race that is modern US parenting.

I love summers. Even busy summers like the one we just had (of which you will surly hear in future posts). You can’t always tell that by looking at me during the summer itself, however. Being with kids all day, every day, for weeks on end sure has it’s challenges.

The constant bickering, for one. It starts in the morning, when more than one child wakes up, and lasts ALL DAY LONG: “He breathed on me,” “her elbow touched my leg,” “who ate the last piece of pie?!” They can fight over matters so small, you need a microscope to see them. They can even squabble over issues that do not exist at all!

Then there is the constant mess: jackets, shoes, towels and socks–SOCKS!!–all over and everywhere. You don’t know how many dishes hide in the kitchen until summer comes and they all come out… All of a sudden you find yourself loading the dishwasher three times a day. Pots and pans accumulate at an astonishing speed, and somehow always seem to be there, even if you assign the kids with dish-washing chores…

Did I mention the laundry? Piles of it, all the time?!

Folding laundry

And, you can’t do any of your own work. At least, I can’t. I haven’t created or sewed anything all summer long. Even my Etsy shop went on vacation, so that I could spend time with the kids. I missed my fabrics and my machine, and the summer traveling was SO inspirational! Ideas for new creations kept buzzing in my head, racing around, urging to be tried. My fingers itched for some fabric … But I had to suppress it all, save the ideas for a later time.

Yet, although I’m looking forward to uninterrupted days; to mornings of dropping the kids off at school and then returning to my sewing room to play with fabrics; I still feel sad that the summer is over. Just like I do every year at this time.

Because although the kids can be annoying, they are also fun to be around. Their constant noise makes the house feel lively. Showing them the world allows me to see things from new points of view. Having them with me challenges me to try new things, go to new places, eat new foods. My kids are also big enough now to actually help around the house: we completed the Big Clean Up that used to take us weeks in half the usual time (and yes, I still think it’s a great kid summer activity!). They even helped with the garden, though THAT took some forcing…

After the Big Clean Up: Collecting Donations

Besides, I acutely realize that my time with the kids is limited, and with the older ones–drawing to an end. They are getting bigger and bigger by the day, and will soon start leaving the nest and building their own lives. I greatly cherish the opportunity to spend time with them, as long as I can, even though I’m also eager to resume my own life…

Graffiti Heaven in Florentin Neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel

I love seeing art when I travel. Fine art exhibited in museums, of course, but also grass-roots arts, such as the arts seen at craft markets or on city walls. Yep. Graffiti can be viewed by some as vulgar vandalism, but it is also the artistic expression of certain segments of society.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is an entire neighborhood that celebrates graffiti: Florentin, in the southern part of the city. There, colorful murals completely cover  several city blocks. On my latest visit to the Holy Land several months ago, I went to check it out. I enjoyed looking at all the different works created by different people. The paintings were a collection of many styles, ideas, and political orientations.

Here is a little taste of what this neighborhood has to offer:

After walking around a bit, I noticed works that seemed similar. The style seemed consistent, as if drawn by the same hand. I started actively looking for works by this artist, an activity that became a kind of a game for me and my kids. It reminded me of our trip to London a couple of years ago, and of how we enjoyed doing the same there.

I later found a signed work by the artist in a different neighborhood. That’s how I learned of Sara Erenthal and her work.

As I was about to leave the neighborhood, I saw a big sign on top of a building. Only then did I realize why the municipality allowed all that graffiti. The entire neighborhood, it turns out, is deemed for demolition. Soon brand-new sky-scrapers will replace the old, paint-covered buildings.

So, if you find yourself in Israel soon, go check Florentin out before it disappears. There are special graffiti tours you can take, and even graffiti workshops!

An Unexpected Discovery In Ma’ale Gamla, Israel

Did you ever make a small discovery that brightened up your day? It doesn’t have to be a gold-filled-chest kind of a discovery. Just a little, surprising encounter that made you happy? If so, then you must know how I felt when I found a yard full of art at a most unexpected place!

On my latest trip to Israel several months ago, my family and I were staying at a Zimmer in Ma’ale Gamla in the Golan Heights (a “zimmer” is how Israelis call cabins for rent). Ma’ale Gamla is a tiny residential town overlooking the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). Its population consists of about one hundred families, and the only store in existence is a little grocery. Tourists mostly use it as a base for exploring the surroundings.

Early one morning during our short stay in the town, my husband and I decided to go on a little morning walk. My husband, a veteran Pokemon hunter, already explored the place the day before. As we walked, he slowly stirred me towards a side street he thought I might find interesting.

Neat houses and greenery lined the narrow, unassuming street on both sides. It was very quiet in that early hour. Suddenly, I noticed a life-size sculpture at the entrance to a driveway.

Turned out this was a Poke Stop called “Peres in a Bathing Suit,” and that this was how my husband found the statue in the first place.

On the other side of the driveway, still along the main road, I saw yet another life-size sculpture, this one of a dancing girl:

A more careful inspection revealed a small cat-sculpture in the corner:

As we walked on, we realized that the entire front yard was packed-full of art: sculptures big and small made out of plaster, metal mesh, clay and even fabric; reliefs; paintings. We stopped to admire them.

As we were standing there, the front door opened, and a man came out to collect his morning paper.

We felt a bit embarrassed, to be caught gawking like that. But the man turned out to be very friendly. When I told him how impressed I was with all that art, he explained that  the artist was his wife. He then invited us over to see the back yard.

The back, too, was full of life-size sculptures:

It also had some small ones, like those two metal ants I found charming:

And, there was an entire collection of oven-glazed clay figurines:

Even the plant pots had faces!

We learned that this artist occasionally exhibited her works in local galleries. After we left, I realized I never asked for her name. Unfortunately, I was unable to find out more about her afterwards.

Seeing her fun work, however, really made my day. Her creativity shaped the space around her house, dotting it with cheerfulness and joy. Looking at everything she made was truly inspiring!

Next time you stay at a guest house, make sure to take a little walk around the neighborhood. You never know what you might find!

Sure, You Can Probably Do the Inca Trail, But Should You?

I wrote extensively about our December trip to Peru, because … well, there was a lot to write about! I absolutely MUST write this one last Peru post, though, because trekking the Inca Trail was an experience of a lifetime.

Why I’m Sure You Can Do It, Too, Unless You Have a Serious Health Issue:

I first read about the Inca Trail a few decades ago, as I was procrastinating instead of writing my dissertation. It looked thrilling and fun, but seemed like one of those faraway things one can only dream about. Except that last December we did end up going to Peru…

We HAD to sign up for the trek, of course. But to tell you I wasn’t worried would be a lie. For one, I was a lot older than I was when I first read about it. A lot more out of shape, too. AND I was recovering from a second bout of debilitating back pain, the kind that rendered me nearly immobile for several weeks… I was terrified to hurt my back again, two-days into the trail, with no way out but a helicopter airlift… I went back and forth, trying to decide whether I should go or not. Then, at the last minute, I decided to go for it.

Now, my kids are in much better shape than I am. Several hours before leaving for the trek, however, we needed to take two out of the three to a clinic. One had an ear infection. The other–a bad stomach virus that involved sever vomiting and diarrhea. They went on the trek sick, each with their own antibiotics, and a small arsenal of additional medications.

So, folks, if we could do the Inca Trail, you could, too!

What to Expect

The classic Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-kilometer trek. It leaves from km 82 of the railroad, heads north towards the Amazon, and ends in the famous city of Machu Picchu.

The Trail

This is what all the guide books tell you: The first day is an easy warm-up. The second day, which takes you up to an elevation of more then 4,200 meters, is brutal. The third day is all downhill, and the fourth day is easy, with a short hike from the park entrance, up to the Sun Gate and down to Machu Picchu.

The reality: The first day is an “Inca Flat.” “Inca Flat” means lots of ups and downs. It might be easy if you’re in great shape. Otherwise … not so much. During this day you will walk through some pretty wilderness:

But also through many little villages that offer drinks and snacks for sale, as well as bathroom-use for a small fee.

You will also see your first Inca ruins, and realize, to your amazement, that there’s a ruin on almost every hill!

The second day is, indeed, brutal. Because if “Inca Flat” can be steep, just imagine what “Inca Steep” is like… Think an entire day of these:

And how grueling it can be to actually climb them…

My legs got so wobbly, that I needed to use walking sticks (those are life-savers!):

Don’t believe all the smiling Dead Woman’s Pass blog-post pictures you see everywhere. This is what it REALLY feels like to climb up to the highest part of the trail:

And yes, I, too, have a smiling picture from the Pass. But not because I felt great. I was smiling because, against all expectations, I made it there ALIVE!

That night I barely managed to crawl out of my tent to eat dinner…

The third day, I thought, would be super easy. What can be easier than going downhill, right? Uhmm … WRONG! Because this wasn’t down, it was “Inca Down.” That means starting the day with a twenty-minute upward climb. Then going down Inca steps, which  are STEEP. Some are knee-high. It rained. And everything was slippery. Going down those stairs was almost worse than climbing them!

The “leisurely” fourth day started with a 3:00 am wake-up call. We had to pack in the dark. Then we sat for two hours, in the dark and cold, along with five hundred other people, all waiting for the gate to the national park to open.

The minute the gate opened, at 5:30 am, the Great Race began. People were running, overtaking, almost pushing, only to get to the Sun Gate first. My family disappeared with the first rush. I walked as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. The view was beautiful, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Then, right before the Sun Gate, another set of stairs, which the guides jokingly call “The Death Stairs.” Some people literally crawl up…

From the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu was actually rather easy, though quite packed with tourists even early in the morning.

The Weather

Because of the high elevation and the fact that the trail goes through several climate zones, weather on the Inca trail can be very unpredictable no matter when you go. We went in December, which is the dry season. It didn’t rain on our first day, but, as you can see from the pictures above, it drizzled, rained, poured and hailed on the second and third days. It got quite windy sometimes, too.

And it was mostly foggy for two entire days. We were told there are breath-taking views beyond the trail, but this is all we could see:

Early mornings, evenings and nights were all cold, requiring coats, warm hats and gloves.

The Ruins

The Inca Tail passes near several small Inca settlement. Seeing those up-close and walking around them was one of the highlights of the experience:

Once, we even saw a black lama, which are quite rare!

Your Fellow Trekkers

The Peruvian government allows only 500 people a day on the trail. That number includes 200 tourists and 300 porters. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but since all these people walk at about the same pace, the trail feels rather crowded most of the time.

People overtake you constantly. Rows of porters go by, carrying ginormous, heavy loads. Each company has a different uniform for its porters, and the guides jokingly call the porter-rows “caterpillars.” During the day you see “Red Caterpillars,” “Green Caterpillars,” “Blue Caterpillars,” “Orange Caterpillars” and so on.

You meet other tourist groups at lunch stops, and several groups share a night camp.

The Food

Every group travels with a chef. Porters carry portable kitchens and all the ingredients. Meals are cooked on the spot. Despite the minimal facilities, the food was incredible! It not only tasted good, but was also presented beautifully, like at a high-end restaurant. I am vegetarian, and got some vegetarian dishes cooked just for me.

There is even a waiter, who serves everything restaurant-style:

On the last day, we actually got a freshly-baked cake!

The Bathrooms

Bathrooms on the Inca Trail are far between and far from perfect. On the first day, there are bathrooms you can use in the villages you pass. You need to pay a small fee. Those are very simple and not super clean. For the rest of the trip, there are few public bathrooms along the tail, and heavily-used-but-rarely-cleaned bathrooms in every night camp. I’ve seen worse in China a few decades ago. My kids were appalled.

When no bathrooms are available, you are allowed to use “Pacha Mama (=Mother Earth) Bathrooms.”  The problem is, that finding a private place is hard. The trail, as I mentioned, is crowded, with people passing you all the time. Even if you find a secluded spot, you never know when someone will appear from around the bend… As usual, things are easier for men than for women.

Some porter companies take portable potties along. I think that making porters carry heavy potties (not to mention cleaning them!) is unnecessary and inhumane. We chose a company that didn’t do that.

Why I’m Not Sure You Should…

I’ve been dreaming of doing the Inca Trail for decades, and although it was hard, I’m really glad I did. The trail was physically challenging, but pushing myself through it felt rewarding. Seeing the different landscapes of Peru up-close was interesting, even in the fog. Walking is the only way to see the many Inca ruins along the way. And Machu Picchu was everything I hoped it would be!

However…

It IS hard!

Even fit people find parts of the trail challenging. If you’re the kind of person who suffers greatly while hiking, this isn’t an experience for you!

There is no helicopter

It turns out that the rumors about a helicopter airlift are a myth. There is no good place for helicopters to land along the trek. If something happens on the first day, while you are close to villages, you can hire a horse or donkey and ride out. After that, you need to walk out, no matter what.

The bathrooms suck

You might be grossed out if you’re not used to it…

You might feel guilty about the porters

I know I did! It’s true that the Inca Trail trek provides many jobs to people who might otherwise not have them. It’s also true that these jobs pay better than some others. However, being a porter is really hard work! Porters carry huge backspaces and heavy loads. Once, there were no regulations and they were made to carry whatever tourists wanted them to. Now, the weight is limited to 20 kg, but it is still a lot.

The porters who pass you are constantly sweating. They chew coca leaves to keep themselves going. The porters have to get to camp before you, and set everything up so it’s ready when you arrive. They have to take everything down once you leave, and then rush to catch up and overpass you, so they can be there to set up the next stop…

Some porter companies don’t provide their workers even with basic equipment. We’ve seen porters wearing flip flops. And some companies make them carry portapotties…

The porters all sleep together in the dining tent once you are done eating. The food they eat is not nearly as sophisticated as what they make for you.

You don’t sleep a lot

On the first day, the guide comes to pick you up from your hotel at 4:00 am. On the second day, since you need to climb up quite a bit, wake-up is at 5:00 am, with a 5:30 departure. The third day isn’t so bad, with a 6:00 am wake-up call. But on the last day you need to get up before 3:00 am. That’s because the porters need to catch a 7:00 am train back to Cusco, and need to be able to pack camp and hike all the way down to make it to the train in time.

And so…

When you finally arrive in Machu Picchu, you’re exhausted!

Machu Pichhu was a city, and it is much larger than all the ruins you see along the way. So although by the end of the trek you think you’ve seen a lot of ruins, you are STILL awed when you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I, personally, felt elated once I actually made it there!

Even early in the morning, Machu Picchu is swarming with tourists. You can immediately tell who hiked there, though. The Inca-Trail veterans have an air of superiority to them. They feel a bit … hardier than everyone else (“The Lazies,” as our guide called them). They also have black circles around their eyes. And they certainly smell more … fragrant. Wearing, hiking and sleeping in the same outfit for several days feels OK on the trail, where you are surrounded by people who do the same. But once you come in contact with civilization again, you become a little self-conscious…

Then there are a few additional hours of touring the place. Our guide had a lot to explain, but I found it hard to listen. I just wanted to sleep. I was wondering if getting there on an early train, after a nice breakfast and a shower, wouldn’t have been just as good…

Taquile Island, Peru: A Place Where Knitting is Men’s Work

For the last few weeks a video has been circulating on Facebook. It keeps showing up in my feed, shared by different people and to different groups. The video depicts a tough-looking guy knitting on the subway. The sight of a man knitting, apparently, is so unusual in our society, that a grainy video about it goes viral.

But who said knitting was a womanly craft? Apparently, for a long stretch of history, men dominated the knitting world. In the Middle Ages, for example, men-only knitting guilds prohibited women from joining. At that time, a teenage boy needed to train for over six years before he could join a guild. Knitted goods were mostly reserved for the upper classes. During WWII, which was not that long ago, boys in the USA and England learned to knit at school, and made woolly goods for the troops on the front. Wounded soldiers, too, were taught knitting, to keep themselves busy.

After my family and I stayed on Amantani Island on Lake Titicaca in Peru, we went to visit a tiny island nearby. On the beautiful Taquile Island, women weave and men knit. That’s just the way things are.

Boys learn knitting when they turn eight. They knit their entire lives, making mostly hats for men. When a young man wants to get married, he is expected to pass a knitting test of sorts: he has to knit the finest hat he can, and present it to his potential father-in-law. He needs to knit the hat so tightly, that water does not seep through it. If the father-in-law approves of his work, the young man can then go ahead and marry his chosen bride.

Men’s hats come in different patterns, which depict a person’s age and status. Baby hats have ruffles:

Single men wear mostly white hats:

Married men wear red hats:

Only community leaders wear the colorful hats (mostly with ear-coverings) that we associate with Peru (the knitter above is a leader):

The knitters are very proud of their work, and aim for small, even stitches:

It often takes a man two months to knit one hat.

When wearing a hat, a man signals his mood by flipping it to one direction. A hat flipped to the left = happy. To the right = sad. This guy, for example, must have had a rough morning:

Nowadays, the Island inhabitants rely on tourism for a living. The hats men knit for tourists don’t follow the traditional rules. Tourists get all kinds of colorful hats, and also gloves. The islanders sell their knitted goods, along with the women’s weaving, at a store on the Island’s main square:

Apparently, the Spanish Conquistadors were the ones who introduced knitting to Peru in the 16th century. The craft spread to different parts of the country, and is still practiced by men even outside the Lake Titicaca region.

There are many articles about the soothing, health-benefiting effects of knitting. The craft is slowly making a comeback, sweeping men as well as women. With time, perhaps, even in Western countries we won’t  have to get excited about seeing a guy knit in a public place…