Notes on demonstrating spinning at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

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We were honored to be invited to participate in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall in Washington DC.  We shipped a loom out for Irvin to weave on, but they borrowed a wheel for me that is just like the one I use at home.  I also brought a couple of scoured churro fleeces to spin during the weekend we were there.

Most folks don’t seem to know what spinning is,  what weaving is,  or what a spinning wheel or loom is.  People thought I was making thread, or maybe rope, working silk, weaving, knitting, or sewing.   For some reason, a number of people thought the churro wool looked like alpaca fiber.  Since these processes and tools are so removed from day-to-day life,  I guess this is all understandable.  Irvin was right by me, weaving, so at least I could point out the loom and ask them to observe the weaving process. All of this makes me think that fiber folks should be out in front of people more often.

There were, however,  people whose nostalgia about wool and spinning and looms very much affected them.  People with family or friends, or long-ago-and-far-away histories, that involve these things.   The mother and daughter from Thailand, the lady from Ethiopia whose family wasn’t privy to weaving or spinning skills, but who maybe she wished they had been.  The lady from India who was learning all about sprang.  People who really wanted to learn to spin.  Knitters and weavers who think maybe they’ll spin one day.   And some people who were just enthralled by the wheel and the seemingly magical process.

But the kids were the most fun.  The little ones were down at my level.  Some kids are too shy to speak to a stranger about that mysterious thing I was doing.   Lots of kids just stared.   There was a lot of confused information given to them by parents who wanted to explain things but didn’t really know themselves.

Some wanted to try it out.  (Uhh, might be frustrating for both of us.)  Some tried to touch the wheel while I was spinning.  (No way! That’s just dangerous.)  I let them feel the fleece, which looked a lot softer than it felt. That was when parents would touch too,  which was great.

My favorite kid encounter was with a boy who was maybe four or so, whose jaw dropped and   eyes shone.  He loved what he was seeing.  I like to think that somehow spinning is kinda magical and that’s what he was thinking too. He came back a couple of times, and made me very happy.  There’s always hope when that kind joy exists in the world.

Dyed in the Wool – New Mexico Magazine article

Sheep and Wool

Pat's Churros

The breed of sheep brought by the Spanish to New Mexico is called Navajo-Churro or Churro. It is a hardy breed, well suited to the extremes of our local climate and terrain. It is common for churro to bear twins, which would certainly be advantageous from the point of view of hungry sheep owners.  Its wool is not as greasy as most breeds, requiring less precious water and shorter preparation time for the spinner. Churro wool has a luster that, in a lot of old pieces, has an almost silky look. Its fleece also has what is commonly described as a “double coat”.  Similar to a cat’s, there is a thick lower layer of fine wool, with longer, coarser, fibers interspersed forming a sort of shaggy-looking outer layer.

For centuries in Spain there were two prominent breeds of sheep.  The merino sheep were the “royal” breed and were protected from leaving Spain by the Spanish crown.  Merino wool is still the finest wool fiber around, but it is no longer confined to Spain.  Churro sheep were the peasant breed, and were allowed to go with colonists across the ocean to the new world.  The first churro came to New Mexico with the first settlers in 1598, when they settled not far from Chimayo, by San Juan Pueblo.  The original sheep probably didn’t survive to leave their legacy here, but subsequent settlers brought more sheep and the hardy churro thrived. By the mid-nineteenth century, flocks of sheep were big enough that they were driven by the thousands to be sold beyond the borders of New Mexico in mining towns in Mexico, and, as trains approached our state, to board trains for consumption elsewhere.  Wool and blankets were also important trade items.

As the market for wool began to demand a finer fiber, the mercantile traders in New Mexico began replacing churro sheep with other, finer breeds.  These breeds were mostly descendants of the merino sheep, mainly Rambouillet.  These sheep were larger and produced bigger and more valuable fleeces.  By the mid-twentieth century there were very few churro to be found.  In the 1970’s the breed was declared to be endangered, and people began work on reinstating the breed and encouraging its use, both in Navajo and Hispanic communities.  They were successful in their efforts and the breed is now no longer endangered but is still listed as a rare breed.

Most of the wool spun by the weavers associated with Centinela is churro.  Irvin Trujillo’s sister, Pat Trujillo Oviedo, raises churro sheep here at La Centinela, and we often spin up her fleeces. We have a number of other sources for wonderful churro fleeces from other flocks that live here in our area.  We also often weave churro yarn spun at the Mora Valley Wool Mill.  We proudly represent Heritage Blankets New Mexico, who use the Mora Valley churro yarn exclusively.