Above: Learn to make your own yarn at the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center. Photograph by Minesh Bacrania.
HOW TO START
Get acquainted with the state’s Fiber Arts Trails, established by New Mexico Arts, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. To map out visits to weaving studios and shops, go to nmfiberarts.org, which has links to fiber arts groups around the state.
WHERE TO SHOP
Centinela Traditional Arts carries high-quality weavings by Irvin and Lisa Trujillo, plus other local weavers. 946 N.M. 76, Chimayó; (505) 351-2180; chimayoweavers.com
Mora Valley Spinning Mill offers tours of its factory for $5; buy the wool and the work of local artists in the Tapetes de Lana gallery. N.M. 518 at N.M. 434, Mora; (575) 387-2247; moravalleyspinningmill.com Ortega’s Weaving Shop has represented Chimayó weavers since 1900; some work on-site. 53 Plaza del Cerro; (505) 351-4215; ortegasweaving.com
Ramah Navajo Weavers Association supports traditional weavers of Churro wool. Call ahead for events or directions or to make an appointment. In Pine Hill, south of Ramah.
Toadlena Trading Post combines galleries of contemporary and antique weavings with a general store and museum. See website for directions. Off U.S. 491 between Gallup and Farmington; (888) 420-0005; toadlenatradingpost.com
TAKE A CLASS
Española Valley Fiber Arts Center sells supplies and has a robust schedule of classes. 325 Paseo de Oñate; (505) 747-3577; evfac.org
Tierra Wools offers materials, weavings, art, and classes. Stay in the next-door casita while you learn. 91 Main St., Los Ojos; (575) 588-7231; handweavers.com
Weaving Southwest features weavings, yarns, and classes for all abilities. 487 N.M. 150, Arroyo Seco; (575) 758-0433; on Facebook.
WHERE TO STAY
Base at the historic Rancho de Chimayó Hacienda to visit weaving locations throughout the area. 297 Juan Medina Rd.; (505) 351-2222; ranchodechimayo.com
Yellow aspens glimmered from the high country as autumn brought a welcome chill to the 2013 Wool Festival at Taos. Warm-up options abounded in the pop-up tents, including Icelandic sweaters, felted hats, and woven shawls. Alpacas, goats, and Churro sheep nosed around their pens while one avid knitter kept her needles clicking and her creation growing as she strolled from booth to booth. Her agility amazed me. My own fingers felt fumbly. The daughter of an expert quilter and granddaughter of a tailor and furrier, I am, alas, unable to sew a button without snarling the thread.
But here in a park just off the Taos Plaza, I’m surrounded by the most luxurious wools and some of the best weavers in the Southwest. More than 60 booths offer raw fleece and spun yarns from sheep, llamas, bison, yaks, and rabbits. You can buy looms, spindles, shuttles, shepherd’s crooks, mittens, purses, slippers, scarves, Río Grande blankets, Christmas ornaments, plants for natural dyes, and a tea cozy shaped like a chicken.
The musky-sweet aroma from the Haugen’s Mountain Grown Lamb grill buckled my knees, and the sight of skein upon skein of Churro yarns nearly did me in. Hanging in crinkly sways of their straight-off-the-sheep colors—gray, beige, tan, brown, and purply black—they conjured the vision of a blanket or scarf that I might knit, weave, or crochet, assuming I knew how to do any of that.
A chat with Bettye Sullivan set my can-do hallucination straight. Easy as it seems, her award-winning weavings take years of training and an expensive investment in armloads of wool. Sullivan lives in Taos with her husband, fellow champion weaver Alex George. The two dye their wool in a kettle over an open fire to achieve the brilliant colors that define their abstract work. Today, their Walking Rain Studio feeds collections across the nation and in three foreign countries—thanks in part to Bettye’s long-ago apprenticeship with Rachel Brown.
“She’s the guru, the goddess,” Bettye says of Brown, a legendary woman who rekindled weaving traditions throughout New Mexico. A self-taught modernist weaver, Brown trained countless wannabes and wrote an indispensable guide, The Weaving, Spinning and Dyeing Book, now in its 14th edition. She died in 2012, and this wool festival is one of her legacies. It started small in 1983, and now attracts visitors from around the world. For all the knowledge Brown held about wool and weavers, you could write an encyclopedia. Dizzy with options, I ask Bettye where to start.
“Head up to Weaving Southwest in Arroyo Seco,” she advises. “You’ll probably find Rachel’s granddaughter dyeing wool in the middle of the road.”
Arroyo Seco combines a bounty of Taos Ski Valley lodgings with a quirky smattering of galleries and cafés. Inside one of them, a Quonset hut tacked onto a two-story concrete tower, Teresa Loveless settles onto a futon, sips tea, and remembers Grandma.
In 1956, Buffalo native Rachel Brown moved to Taos and discovered an affinity for weaving. She opened various wool-related businesses, eventually growing her Weaving Southwest gallery into a Taos Plaza hot spot and working with anti-poverty groups to turn traditional weaving skills into jobs.
“She got me my first loom when I was four,” Loveless says. Later, she considered a career in biology, but when her grandmother neared 80, the business needed her more.
Loveless took over and, using her grandmother’s recipes and kettles, developed a passion for dyeing wools. By 2012, when Brown died, the economy couldn’t sustain the large gallery, so Loveless and her husband, Joe Barry, downsized to Arroyo Seco. Modernistic weavings line the walls and pile up on pedestals, surrounded by cubbies containing yarns that sell out fast. In the rear, Río Grande walking looms, which allow weavers to work in a standing position, await the next set of students eager to learn the craft.
“Last year we taught about 50 people across nine months,” she says. “Some are beginners, and some are very experienced but can’t, say, get angles down. We taught a whole class on vertical joints.”
The solid, four-legged structures, successors of traditional Hispanic treadle looms, hark back to the Spanish colonists who introduced livestock and a new type of weaving to Native peoples more accustomed to using materials like yucca fibers. Each loom thus represents more than 400 years of New Mexico weaving history, and that’s only part of the story.
“Every aspect of the fiber—you could write volumes on it,” Loveless says. “How the sheep is raised, and what type of sheep. Then the shearing and processing, handwoven or mill-woven, natural or synthetic dye. The Río Grande looms or the Navajo loom? There’s so many forks in the road. We’re all doing fiber work, but we all take a different fork. And it all starts with the sheep.”
FLEECED AND FOUND
I drive an hour west to Tierra Amarilla, then jog north to Molly and Antonio Manzanares’s ranch. There, the sheep are restless. Bunchy winter coats belie their trim waistlines. Nearly 1,000 await a springtime shearing.
Set in tiny Los Ojos, with a gorgeous view of the Brazos Cliffs, the ranch claims one of the last herded bands of sheep in the state. Besides nearly a freight car of wool, it produces the organic chops, shanks, and legs sold as Shepherd’s Lamb to avid foodies at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.
A crew from Colorado—two Mormon men, two Amish men—sharpen their electric shears as Fig, a young Australian shepherd, practices her herding techniques. In a blink, a succession of fuzzy Rambouillets, ropy-haired Churros, and a confusion of cross-breeds bleat and bawl their way to pens, then into chutes, then into a trailer with four shearing stations. Suddenly skinny, they leap clumsily as their fleece is tossed aside. Molly, Antonio, and Sophia DeYapp pull each fleece onto a table and yank out salient dirt clumps before packing the rest into 400-pound bags. Soon I put my hands in it, too.
Raised in hardworking cattle families, Molly and Antonio fell into raising sheep at a time when the market favored the breed. He joined with other activists to establish Ganados del Valle, a cooperative for weavers and growers, which soon hired Rachel Brown to train weavers. Today the Tierra Wools gallery and school occupies an 1800s mercantile on what passes for the town’s main drag. Artists all across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado display their creations in the spacious front room, but DeYapp’s son, Nathaniel Chavez, takes me to the rear, into the classroom “where the magic happens.” Río Grande walking looms are strung with warp, ready for the interplay of wools dyed on-site with natural materials, including madder root, marigolds, and the beloved cochineal beetle, which produces a rich red.
“My wife and I learned to weave last year,” he says. “It’s pretty interesting, pretty fun. You get to see something come out of nothing. You pick your colors and a pattern, and it all comes together.”
Nearby, Nebraska native Jack Moody worked on the final two inches of a weaving that looked as expert as anything on display. In fact, it was his first large blanket. He had recently moved to Taos to learn more about fiber arts, because “I didn’t have anyone in Nebraska to show me.”
Standing at the loom, his feet on pedals that alternate the warp’s alignment, he worked the weft, inching a layer of yarn across the width, transforming a forest-green background with a colorful pattern.
“I think I’ll keep it,” he said proudly.
Back at the ranch, the crew broke for a hearty lunch. They told each other corny jokes and caught up on the different ways their children had scattered—far from sheep, far from weaving.
“We’ve got some young people interested, like Nathaniel, but it’s not really certain that it’s going to last forever,” Molly says, echoing a concern shared by weavers all over the state.
But there’s little time to ponder. Lunch is over. The fleece pile grows. Within days it will be trucked across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to a minor miracle of small-town entrepreneurship.
TAKING IT FOR A SPIN
About an hour’s drive south of Taos, Karen Vigil, a compact bundle of energy, welcomes me at the Mora Valley Spinning Mill, which she manages. Housed in a onetime hotel, onetime mercantile, the mill combines a factory with a top-notch coffee bar and art gallery named Tapetes de Lana, which also sells local soaps, jellies, and T-shirts that proclaim, HERE TODAY, GONE TO MORA.
For $5, visitors can tour the factory and see how mountains of fleece are sorted, washed, combed, carded, drafted, spun, and plied. Set behind the gallery, the cavernous room filled with heavy metal machines represents an unlikely investment for a village on the hard end of the economic curve. Thanks to that investment, though, Mora has become a godsend to New Mexico’s fiber industry.
“We do Molly’s wool, Angora bunny, alpaca, goats, bison, even poodle,” Vigil says. “Some Navajo ladies from Arizona just left their wool. They all pile into a truck and drive over. They call it a pilgrimage.”
Begun as a weaving program in 1998, during the welfare-to-work era, the enterprise took advantage of other weaving mills’ misfortunes to amass its machinery. Processing wool locally holds down the cost for sheep growers, weavers, and fiber shops.
“We’re the peanut butter,” Vigil says. “On the top, you’ve got the grower. On the bottom, the fiber artist. Without us, there’s no product.”
One of the products that Vigil hopes will entice younger customers into loving wool is “the Katniss wrap.” A fetching asymmetrical wrap/vest hybrid, it was devised by a local knitter inspired by Hunger Games attire. Cute as it is, I’m seduced again by a display of Churro skeins.
What might they become in the hands of a master weaver? I find the answer in Chimayó.
FROM SHEEP TO SHOP
Speak the names Irvin and Lisa Trujillo to an aficionado of New Mexico weaving and eyes light up. Internationally acclaimed for the museum-caliber work they produce, the couple operate Centinela Traditional Arts studio and gallery, in Chimayó, an hour or so down the High Road from Mora (or a short jaunt up the way from Española), in a hamlet renowned for centuries of fine weavers.
Irvin carries the DNA of the Trujillos and Ortegas, names that adorn many a northern New Mexico weaving shop. Lisa came to weaving by way of her love for Irvin—and the day he left her alone with a loom and said, “See what you can do.”
“I actually wove something,” she says. “I learned from watching him long enough.”
“It’s not rocket science,” he adds.
In fact, a computer engineer would understand a loom faster than anyone, Irvin says. “Computer punch cards developed from the loom’s design.”
Beyond the science of weaving, he’s good at explaining its history. In the 16th century, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado brought the first sheep up El Camino Real. Churro sheep were a peasant breed that easily adapted to the desert, and produced a coarse wool perfect for blankets and rugs. Besides sheep, the colonists brought their large looms, and designs that evolved into regional versions, including the bold bands of Chimayós, the stars of Valleros, and the serrated center diamonds of Saltillos.
Irvin and Lisa morphed them further, injecting so many colors and shapes that Teresa Loveless, an admirer, says, “Those two just jump off the cliff.”
Hang around the studio when one of them is weaving and their flying fingers will mesmerize you, along with the sound of the loom’s shk-tok-KAAA, shk-tok-KAAA.
You’ll hear it again at the nearby Ortega’s Weaving Shop, which opened in 1900 and, after lucking into a spot on Fred Harvey’s Indian Detours in 1915, began supporting a legion of local weavers.
“People ask, ‘How can Chimayó support four weaving shops?’” owner Robert Ortega says. “It’s because we’re all different, from collectible, museum-quality pieces to commercial wools.”
How many it might support in the future is the great unknown. Neither of the Trujillos’ children shows an interest in working as a weaver. Ortega’s nieces and nephews seem more captivated by technology. In hopes of keeping traditional weaving alive, Lisa regularly heads to Española, where, in a converted storefront, the inspired weaver becomes the inspiring teacher.
WEAVING IT FORWARD
In the mid-1990s, a small group of contemporary weavers noticed that porches in Española often held the parts to looms. When asked, locals said, “Oh, my grandmother used to weave.” Worried that the looms were destined for kindling, the weavers launched what’s grown into the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, a 7,700-square-foot gallery, yarn shop, and school. Olimpia Newman oversees it, putting to work the knowledge she gained developing textiles jobs for women in third-world countries.
A stone’s throw from the Río Grande, near the city’s old plaza, the center offers workshops, courses, and one-day tryouts. “You call the day before, and the next day, you can come in and weave,” Newman says. “Usually, we teach people to weave a rag rug.”
The center relies on the Mora mill for wool and on people like Lisa Trujillo for expertise. A recent success story saw the development of “Heritage Blankets”—traditionally styled throws made by member weavers. Retailing for $400, they can be found at high-end stores in New Mexico and beyond.
The blankets carry those naturally luscious Churro colors I’m quickly falling for. Among Navajo weavers, the animal and its wool occupy a place of spiritual importance. It’s time for me to pay homage.
THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSAGE
Fifty miles south of Gallup, the Zuni Mountains enclave of Pine Hill boasts the Ramah Navajo Weavers Association, a cooperative that supports a tapestry style defined by homegrown, handwoven, and naturally dyed Churro wool. Inside an energy-efficient version of a traditional hogan, the weavers offer piles of rugs, pillowcases, and place mats made on vertical looms. Bearing far fewer parts than a Spanish version, the looms were the ancestral favorite of this once nomadic tribe.
The association, formed over a Thanksgiving dinner in 1985, won early guidance from Rachel Brown, who helped the members match their work to customers’ interests. It’s open mostly by appointment, and business plays out slowly, with patient translations of Diné to English and back. The 87-year-old subject of Peggy Thomson’s 1995 book Katie Henio Navajo Sheepherder enters the hogan slowly, fresh from cataract surgery.
“The fun part about weaving,” translates her daughter, Sarah Adeky, “is that you bring out your inner feeling into the design, and it represents you in the loom. It’s a way to rejuvenate your head, body, and soul.”
Steiner Cody is just starting to learn that. At 32, his weavings take shape with little thought to a pattern. “It just appears, I guess,” he says.
What appears are psychedelic versions of Changing Woman, Talking God, skinwalkers, and other Navajo deities. His work has made it into SWAIA’s Indian Market, along with the Museum of International Folk Art’s new exhibit, Between Two Worlds: Folk Artists Reflect on the Immigrant Experience.
“I guess I’m a hope for the future of weaving,” he says, although for him, making ends meet requires that he also repair cars and pick up welding jobs.
More than 100 miles north, through long stretches of desert scrub and sculpted badlands, the weavers of the Toadlena and Two Grey Hills outposts long ago learned that same make-do lifestyle. Tucked into the eastern side of the Chuska Mountains, the Toadlena Trading Post has supported weavers for enough generations that manager Mark Winter wrote The Master Weavers, a 608-page book celebrating the best among them.
“There are 175 weavers in 10 miles of where we’re standing,” he says. “The bus driver’s a weaver. The cook at the boarding school weaves.”
Using Churro wool’s natural colors, Two Grey Hills weavings range across all Navajo styles and sometimes play with modern themes. The post takes them on consignment or trades goods from its general store, everything from motor oil to Rice-a-Roni, cough syrup, and Loretta’s Pies (“the Navajo favorite,” Mark says). He and his wife, Linda, have operated the century-old post for 17 years. Besides contemporary weavers, they indulge a passion for vintage Navajo and Spanish rugs. In the various rooms of the trading post, floors and tables groan with the weight of reasonably affordable new ones and stunningly expensive antiques.
“When I sell a 150-year-old chief’s blanket,” Mark says, “it pays for this trading post. What the grannies did all those years ago pays for what their kids do today.”
As we talked, two customers from St. Louis arrived. A Santa Fe shop had sold them a rug from one of Mark’s consignees and recommended they visit the mother ship. While they pondered a second (and then a third) purchase, the weaver of their original rug wandered in. Linda grabbed a camera and captured the three of them, plus the rug, sealing a cultural experience forever embedded in wool.
This year, the Toadlena Trading Post will debut a booth at the Taos Wool Festival, neatly completing a thread begun by Rachel Brown. When the vendors pop their tents, they’ll celebrate victories over market forces, climate change, ambivalent offspring, and pesky moths. They’ll see a grand parade of hobbyists eager to restock their crafts cabinets and learn new tricks. Together, they’ll form a human tapestry of creativity and ingenuity.
“We’re catching a great golden era, and we want to keep it going as long as possible,” Mark says as I prepare to head home. My fingers seem clumsy as ever, but tucked into my cupholder is a tuft of Churro fleece—for me, a symbol of hope. Somewhere in New Mexico, I know, there’s a loom with my name on it.
Kate Nelson is an award-winning journalist, author of the biography Helen Hardin: A Straight Line Curved, and marketing manager at the New Mexico History Museum, where she indulges a love of New Mexico’s art, history, and culture.