Weaving Chimayos is something I come back to time and time again, and after all these years I’m convinced that it’s because I really like what I call “Chimayo thinking”. I’m convinced that it suits me best. So let me explain.
First of all, there is a clear expectation of where I’m going to be putting designs. It doesn’t mean that all Chimayos look the same, but they start and end with stripes, and they’ve got one, two, or three designs between the stripes. Okay, there could be more than three, but the other designs would be sort of unimportant if it really looked like a Chimayo. I know where stripes and designs are going to go, even if I have no idea what they are going to look like. That means I don’t have any need to draw things out or plan much of anything. A Chimayo design can be entirely spontaneous. And that is a recipe for fun weaving!
There are other things that make it fun too. I feel free to use different angles at the same time. Like any other dramatic art form, I can set up things that will eventually conflict with one another, and have to, at some point, resolve those conflicts. As I weave, color dominance can change, thus pushing me to continually make design changes to make a more pleasing balance. Basically, as long as I don’t make it too detailed, the design can move along in such a way that I’m always watching and changing things to make it look interesting and pleasing. It is just the right balance of needing to think about designing and the slow process of tapestry weaving itself.
Here is a step-by-step description of the process.
A. Before Weaving
1. Warp on the loom.
There are always warps on the looms I work on. In our shop we make very long warps of fifty to a hundred yards. And the fact that I am not a very productive weaver means that it is a safe assumption that I’ve got warp on my loom. So I don’t think of warping looms as a part of my designing/weaving process, even though it is probably the most critical stage for most weavers. Since warping is not my favorite thing to do, I tend to think of this as a really big plus to weaving in the Chimayo/Rio Grande tradition.
2. Yarn availablity
So the first step for me is to look over the available materials. I tend to have large amounts of yarn around me day after day after day. I am aware of what yarns need to get used up because no one else will, either because they are tangled, or deemed not a pretty color, or there are only small amounts of it, or maybe a differing dye lot will trip up a weaver, or there are spools that need to be freed up for use in other projects. The reasons I will decide on to use a particular bunch of yarn are pretty varied. Of course, the main thing that matters is that I am intrigued by the color combinations that I see as possible with the yarns that I have available. It is still amazing to me that my best pieces usually come out of times when my yarn choices were limited by these kinds of practical considerations. It is that old truism about necessity being the mother of invention. So generally speaking I am happy to be working within limited colors, whether self-imposed or not.
3. Size and Style
The proportion of colors in the yarns available will suggest to me what styles are options for me. If I have a lot of one color, and not much of the other colors, I can weave a Chimayo. If I have small amounts of a lot of colors, than I can weave Rio Grande, Saltillo or Vallero. Of course there are yarns that inspire me to do non-traditional types of pieces too. The yarns will also determine the size of the piece.
I’ll start by making up a batch of spools. Enough to get going, but, if I can’t guess as to how much yarn I’ll need of each color, I’ll leave some of the yarn aside for future spool- making.
And one more thing before I start weaving: I have to have an idea of what the proportions are going to be. This is one thing I often plan out on paper. I decide how much background, how big the stripes will be, what size designs I will be putting in and where they will go. The more I weave, the less I find myself spending time on this step.
B. Step by Step- The CHIMAYO BLANKET
Then I’ll go to the loom and weave the first bit of background. I’ll try to center my signature mark in the middle of the right hand corner of this band of background color.
Now I can weave the first stripe. This is where I fiddle with color combinations, laying spools next to each other, deciding on color proportions and predominance. I make decisions here about how colors will interact with each other that I will use through the whole piece.
Now there is another bit of background color. This is usually a stressful part of the piece for me. I’m aware of the infinite possibilities of what could occur in this piece. But I’m also imagining some, based on what I learned about my color interactions while I was weaving the first stripe.
4. Secondary design
Ok, in our hypothetical Chimayo, let’s say I decide to weave a base, and lay in yarns to determine the edges of the design, where the two colors meet. These are carefully counted in. I am always conscious that most designs allow me to count only the top threads of the shed, but that I need to be aware of the bottom of the shed for vertical designs. Counts matter only if I want things to be symmetrical. Sometimes that won’t be necessary, but most of the time it is critical to get this first count just right. HOWEVER: this doesn’t mean I know where everything is going to go from this starting point. I am willing to leave as much open as I can, allowing the piece to suggest ideas to me. I know this might sound like artistic nonsense, a bit of a spiritual gobbledygook maybe. But I think that the piece will turn out best if I am constantly looking out for new design possibilities for it as I am moving forward through the piece. This is a design philosophy that is very suitable for Chimayo weaving, and maybe not for some other art forms. But I think that it allows me to be most true to the medium I am working in. It is important for me to be responsive to what already exists in the web I have woven, to imagine the best of what the design possibilities hold.
So this is how I move through the piece. After I lay in colors, determining the edges of color areas, I need to decide what direction any angle I create with that join is going to move in, and whether there will be stepping I’ll need to do to get the overall angle I want to make. I might make some simple algebraic kinds of computations considering how many steps of what size I’ll need to get from point A to point B. These kinds of computations require that I’m aware of how many rounds per inch this warp/weft combination is producing, and although I usually use the same materials, my handspun yarns have some inconsistency in this regard. So, even though I told you in the last paragraph not to plan things out to much, I do want to encourage you to think things through. There is a lot of logic in these pieces. Patterns with potential conflicts are the most interesting to look at, but you, as the weaver, will have to resolve those conflicts in eye-pleasing ways. In any case, it is this process that is where I derive great pleasure from in my weaving: determining possibilities, and creating and resolving conflicts. It takes imagination and intellect, and it is lots of fun, like doing puzzles.
So let’s say I’ve made it through the secondary design.
5. More Background, and maybe Jaspes
Now I can pick up the shuttle again and weave the background color again for a while. I may choose to put in some jaspes in here, especially if I need to cover a lot of ground before I can start a center design.
6. Center Design
A center design will be roughly based on ideas I explored in the secondary design. But I have room to elaborate on things this time, maybe there was an idea I really liked in the secondary design that I think would be so much more interesting if I got to continue it for a longer period. Or there are angles I’d like to have play off of each other that were just parallel or repetitive in the secondary design. The center design gives me time to resolve ideas that were left unsatisfied in the secondary design.
7. At the Center And Coming Back
I want to make sure that every design I’m carrying reverses at the same time at the center of the piece. It is not always aesthetically ideal to turn them around together, so some elements might require some “fudging”, some extra rounds woven while other areas are not actively weaving, so that everything turns around at the center. It is important to take note of these inequalities, and make them up as quickly as possible, in the first few rounds of the second half of the piece. Because the “extra” rounds of design will be doubled right at the center, it will be a judgment call as to whether the “fudging” rounds are aesthetically necessary or not worth the extra bulk they will generate.
Once I reach the center of the piece, I have to stop designing and reverse the design, You are now “The Weaver”. Angles and steps that were working their way out from the center must turn around and move back in. And I must count to make sure I duplicate things I did in the first half. Remembering and anticipating changes that are approaching is what is critical throughout this second half. Even with the mistakes I have to correct in this “coming back” stage, it is still much faster for me to weave the second half of a piece, mainly because I’m not stopping so much to make decisions.
This second half is much like looking at someone else’s weaving. A weaver can “read” another person’s piece, seeing the sequence that the weaver went through to create a piece. This is a valuable skill to have, both for understanding other weavers ideas, and for speeding up that return trip on your own designs. Vertical distances can be measured, especially those expanses of background colors. Everything else involves counting threads, either warp threads for horizontal distances, or rounds ore even pics for verticals. Whereas accuracy really matters, and I always strive to get an accurate reproduction from the first half to the second half, it’s important to be realistic about what kinds of copying errors will be visible and what won’t. It isn’t worth unweaving a lot to correct an error that will be totally unnoticeable to the viewer of the piece. There will have to be a level of error that you can live with, because you will make mistakes doing this. You’ll have to figure out what you can live with on a case-by-case basis. And I’ve always figured that weaving accurately wasn’t due to my not making mistakes, but because of quickly catching my mistakes. It’s all about being aware of what your design is doing and anticipating the changes coming up. This requires tremendous focus. (This must be more difficult when some instructor is looking over your shoulder all the time like in these workshops. Maybe you’d like to go home and practice.)