This is actually a fairly complete history of Rio Grande weaving. A few weeks ago we were a part of a group of amazing experts on the local Hispanic culture of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado that met in Alamosa, Colorado. The participants are all instructors for something called the Hilos Institute. The Institute is, we learned, about teaching instructors at Adams State University about the culture that a lot of their students come from, so that they can be do a better job as teachers. And what they wanted us to understand, was how to organize our knowledge around teaching about Hispanic culture to their instructors. We learned about “backwards design”, which turned out to be a very logical idea about teaching according to a goal of what you want your students to be learning. So this idea popped into my mind. This is (obviously) a spreadsheet. And it includes pretty much the whole of what we want people to understand about how our weaving tradition evolved through the major historical periods of Hispanic New Mexico’s history. It’s a little bit disconcerting to put your life’s learning into a spreadsheet like this, but hey, simplifying life is supposed to be a good thing, right?
Each of these images is good for a blog post or two, and has provided inspiration for countless weavings. So, no, it isn’t really all that simple. But here it is, anyhow, for your viewing pleasure. We’re still happy to come show you lots of pretty pictures and explain this all in detail, should you want to invite us to speak…
I’ve been thinking a lot about the words we use when we talk to customers. I have to be careful when I use these old words to describe an even more ancient craft, that I don’t lose my very modern listener and potential customer. Once upon a time these words were useful in prose and poetry because everyone was aware of how their clothes were made, there were people all around them involved in the process. But the industrial revolution changed all that. I thought that maybe it would help me to put these communication problems into words, Just to clear my thinking on the subject.
The verbs are where the big problems happen.
Let’s start with what we do, we weave. At 5’2″, I don’t loom over anybody other than small children. I love my loom, but it’s the tool I use and not the correct verb for what I am doing.
Spinning is what I do to turn wool fiber into yarn. It involves a spinning wheel. Spinning is very mildly energetic work, but a spinning wheel is not exercise equipment, and I don’t do it in a class.
Dyeing is what we do to add color to our yarn. I don’t enjoy alarming people when I tell them that Irvin is dyeing today. So I try to indicate that he is feeling well and working in the dye shed, right across the parking lot, over there. This one is a constant challenge for me. Its true that Americans don’t like to talk about dying, but talking about dyeing just confuses people.
Then there is the more technical description of what we. do, which is tapestry. This is a very familiar word for people, but, sadly, is often used improperly, so people don’t really know what it means. It gets applied to other fiber creations, needlepoint, embroidery, jaquard-woven fabrics, and even to a crochet technique. We tapestry weavers get very touchy about this. It’s a weaving technique that involves discontinuous weft. We do a lot of different things with our discontinuous weft, but as long as that weft is not traveling from one selvage to the other, it’s tapestry. Very few people, even other weavers, are familiar with tapestry and yes, it takes a long time. I like that aspect of it, and no, laborious, tedious, and boring, do not apply.
There are other words we use that people have heard, but aren’t familiar with. Warp is the yarn we weave weft into. I like to point out that the warp is attached to the loom and the weft is what I’m working into the warp. I will not mention the word woof unless the customer does. I prefer to leave that word for dog conversations. We have a very talkative dog that people can often hear barking behind the shop, but that is another issue.
I do enjoy pointing out that a shuttle carries yarn from side to side, back and forth across the warp on the loom. Yes, it’s kinda like a shuttle bus or the space shuttle. I think it’s a safe bet that the action of those other shuttles were so analogous to weaving shuttles that they didn’t bother inventing new words.
Other fiber topics might lead me to discuss knit brows or needling someone into doing something, but they don’t come up in my weaving demonstrations, so I don’t have to go into that here. suffice to say that I love teaching about what we do to everyone who comes by, even if I have to teach the lingo to pretty much all of them.
There are probably web sites out there that could tell you a great deal about spinning wool. In case you are unfamiliar with the craft, and, in modern times this is largely the case, I will impart my limited experience here. Although I have spent countless hours at my wheel, I am not formally trained in spinning.
I currently spin at a Shacht Ladybug spinning wheel, and never ply my handspun. I am able to spin different thicknesses of wool, although a very thick yarn is difficult for me at this stage. Most often I have spun directly from unscoured wool. This is commonly called “spinning in the grease”. I have been warned about this, as sheep can carry disease, and I have to admit that there is a certain, occasionally unpleasant, smell involved. And it is true that I can spin a more even yarn if I scour and card the wool first. But years of practice, combined with a practical level of laziness, has led me to this as my favorite process.
What follows here is a summary of a traditional process for preparing wool.
- Skirting a fleece is the first step after shearing. (I’ve never kept sheep, nor sheared them.) It involves removing the unspinnable stuff. That is, wool that is too short, too greasy, or covered with other materials that sheep manage to get into their wool.
- Scouring the wool is basically just as it sounds. First the wool goes into a vat which has a convenient hole on the bottom. We then cover the wool with water several times, letting the dirty water drain out the hole. Then we do a detergent wash, with warm water, to remove the excess lanolin. Then we spread it out and let it dry.
- Carding wool, by means of hand cards or a drum carder, arranges the fibers so that they are evenly distributed through a rolag (for hand cards) or bat (in the case of a drum carder) and easy to spin. This produces a "woolen" yarn, light and fluffy, or as knitters might appreciate, it has "loft" to it. This is very suitable to blankets and clothing as it traps more air between skin and cold air.
- Combing wool, on the other hand, arranges fibers in a more parallel arrangement. This produces a "worsted" yarn when spun. This is a yarn more suitable for rugs. It’s fibers are more tightly packed, and so less penetrable by dirt. This makes it hard wearing. It is also harder to break by merely pulling, so it makes a much better warp yarn. It is possible to comb wool, spin only the longest fibers to make a strong warp, and then card the shorter fibers for a weft yarn for a warm blanket. Churro wool is ideally suited for this due to its double coat.
Once I have processed, or not processed, my fibers, as the case may be, I am prepared to spin the wool. The process of spinning involves drawing a reasonably consistent amount of fiber into a continuously twisting yarn. Actually it’s not continuously twisting if I spin on a malacate. The malacate is the spindle traditionally used by spinners involved in producing Rio Grande blankets. It is roughly a foot long, usually has a wooden whorl, and is used with the spinner sitting down, with a bowl in their lap, and the malacate spinning in the bowl. Spindle
spinning is a good way to get an understanding of the spinning process, but I prefer to use my wheel for actually producing yarn.
I’ve been spinning since around 1985 and have done a lot of yarn. In recent years we have actually had a handful of orders for handspun pieces, including some pretty large rugs. This means that I have had to find a way to spin larger quantities of yarn than I ever did before. The answer to this was to buy a modern wheel. It seems silly to say that spinning wheel technology has improved a lot in the last three decades, but it’s true. My new Ladybug wheel is just much easier to treadle. I also invested in what’s called a “Woolee Winder”, which allows me to spin without pausing to move yarn from hook to hook. The last component for production spinning was willpower. If I make myself sit down at the wheel every evening after dinner, I can get lots of yarn spun.
One other thing about my spinning that I want to be clear about. I am spinning for weft-faced rugs and blankets. I want to produce a yarn that is going to be strong. I also want a yarn that shows that it is handspun. This means that I don’t need soft, fluffy yarn, and I don’t need it to be too even in texture. So I get to spin a yarn that other spinners might not really have any reason to admire. I still love spinning, and doing it the way that I do. It might be the most pleasant job I ever do in our business. It can be pretty mindless work, even when it’s kind of challenging wool. Actually, maybe mindless is not the right word for it. Really it’s a lot like “mindfulness” meditation, only with yarn as an end result.
I really have no idea how many of these postcards were printed up with this loom during the mid twentieth century but it must be a lot, because there seem to be a lot of them still around after all these years. I have seen them around, mostly in antique stores and the like since I started weaving in 1982. Nowadays you can easily find them sold on Ebay if you ever want one for yourself. The photo was taken in Santa Fe, in a shop on the Plaza called Southwest Arts and Crafts. At one point the image was even painted on the side of the building the shop was in. Even now, the same image is painted onto the side of the spinning mill in Mora, NM. Really.
It is a very similar design to the loom in the postcard. It’s basically in a big box, not a castle loom like many Chimayo weavers use. The breast beam sits inside the box, set in a foot or so from the front of the loom. The beater is hung from above, and it has it so that the beater can be adjusted within the space between the harnesses and the weaver. Even the old wooden gear looks the same. I remember asking about Jake’s loom. He would say that he built it in 1925 or so, and that he had modeled it on a loom that was in a store in Santa Fe. The Santa Fe weaver he had learned a lot from was someone named Frank Miera, but I don’t know if what he learned from Mr Miera included loom design. He had built the loom to weave for his brother-in-law Severo Jaramillo, who I gather at some point before or after he became a dealer here in Chimayo was probably selling to the Southwest Arts and Crafts business on the plaza. In any case this big loom was Jake’s favorite. He wove 54″ x 84″ weavings on that loom from the time he built it until World War II. After the war he married and started a life divided between Los Alamos and La Centinela, and between a job and his family and his land. I understand that he rarely wove again until Irvin’s sister Pat left home to go to college and vacated a room that accommodated his loom. That’s when Irvin started to weave. Jake kept this as his favorite loom until the day he died, weaving countless glorious blankets over a long and productive life. After he passed away, we were at a loss as to what to do with his loom. Irvin should have taken it, but it’s a little bit, well, too short for him. Besides, he already had a couple of wide looms to work on. So we put it in the garage for a few years. Eventually it was decided that I, Lisa, could use a big loom, and we pulled it out and set it up where it is in this photo and where it stands to this day. I found out that it is really a great loom and had little trouble adjusting to the bigger loom. What I did have to adjust to was the idea that it was really Jake’s loom. His spirit always seems to me to be there with his loom. I like to think that he supports what I’m doing on that loom.
Sometime in the mid 90’s or so we had someone offer to sell us a bunch of old looms and equipment. The stuff had been found in a garage in Santa Fe; apparently ignored for many decades. I guess I’m not surprised that when people find stuff like this they think of us. And we have bought a lot of old looms over the years, and can usually put them to good use. Irvin was moving his big loom off to another location so that he could weave while the kids were in school in White Rock, so we had a need for another big loom, so we set up the one from the old Santa Fe garage. He didn’t have to make a lot of modifications to it, except to get it to fit under our low-ceiling workspace. Irv started producing his great work on that loom. It took us years to notice that the loom had the same completely inexplicable holes in it’s frame that the loom in the post card had. In the end we had to conclude that Irvin’s loom was the very same loom. There are a couple of other clues that led us this conclusion.
This is the other postcard of that loom. I’m pretty sure that it predates the first postcard in this post by a few years. But it’s the same loom with some of those same inexplicable holes. It also has the spool winder in the picture. Yeah, the think that looks like a spinning wheel probably was never used to spin on, but it is very usefull for preparing spools of wool to weave on. Whereas I’m sure that that is a nonsensical place to be winding spools, it is kind of picturesque. And it was one of the pieces of equipment that came with the loom. As did the madajera that you can see prominently displayed in the later postcard. I put them to use where I work, in the big display room of the shop, because I much prefer manually winding spools to using an electric motor to do the job. I leave such manly techniques to my husband. What is interesting about the winder is that the wheel is a bicycle wheel. And not just any bicycle wheel, but a wooden one. I don’t know enough about bicycle history to tell you what that means exactly. We have been told when the wheel was likely to have been manufactured, but I failed to commit that to memory. The madajera is of an equally distinctive construction. There are much simpler ways to build these, and this one is different than any others that I have seen, combining elements that are like an “umbrella swift” with a permanent base.
So I no longer question that the loom Irvin is now weaving on is the loom from Southwest Arts and Crafts that Jake Trujillo based his -now my- loom on. All these old pieces of weaving equipment require maintenance. We’ve replaced parts over the years, because stuff really does fall apart just like the rules of physics say they do. But our equipment is homemade. We can find or make all the parts we need and we have come up with creative fixes time and time again. It’s all about keeping them going, and it’s what we love to do.