Overall Structure

A khipu with principal parts labeled


Photo courtesy of Peabody Museum, Harvard University

The primary cord is an essential component of any khipu; it is the element to which all other features are attached. Most primary cords are spun and plied, though there are examples of primary cords which are braided or wrapped. Typically the primary cord is thicker than its pendants. Prinary cords range in length from 10 cm to 514 cm. When complete, primary cords often have one doubled end (the result of folding a group of cord components in half during the plying process) and one end with a knot. They may also have both ends knotted or ravelled, or may include needlework bundles or other special attachments.

Pendant cords hang from the primary cord. Pendants may be spaced closely together or far apart. Often the pendants are arranged in clear groups. The groups may be separated by a space, or may be marked by a change in color of the pendant cords. Any pendant may have additional cords hanging from it; such cord are termed subsidiaries. Pendants which leave the primary cord in a direction opposite to most other pendants are called top cords. Some pendants have both of their ends attached to the primary cord; these are called loop pendants.

Section of the Calendar Khipu showing loop pendants and top loop pendant.


Image courtesy of Centro Mallqui, Leymebamba, Peru. (Photo by Gary Urton)

Most surviving khipu are made of cotton. Cotton was grown in several natural colors, including white, light brown, medium brown, and green. All of these colors were used, and some khipu use dyed fiber to expand the range of hues. Cotton khipu may include cords made from the fleece of llama or alpaca, termed camelid fiber. There are also a few khipu made entirely of camelid.



General characteristics of khipu construction.

Each pendant cord incorporates a series of production choices, including how it is spun, its color patterning, and its attachment to the primary cord.

Different kinds of knots are used to record numeric values on khipu cords.

Links and citations for more detailed information about all aspects of khipu.


Last Updated August 2009

© 2009 Gary Urton & Carrie Brezine