Every once in a while, my work forces me to look up and marvel at the place I have landed. This past week was a perfect example. The students in my Weaving for Techies class at New Mexico Tech University are getting ready to tackle weft faced weaves. I wanted to give the students a sense of the living weaving traditions that surround them and how rare it is to live in a place where this is the case. I used to tire of hearing, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone did that anymore?” In New Mexico, you are more likely to be asked what style you weave in and where you sell your work.
New Mexico is known for its Pueblo, Navajo, and Rio Grande weaving styles. Before wool was introduced, the Pueblo people wove with yucca and cotton, either using off loom techniques or a belt loom resembling a backstop loom. It wasn’t until wool showed up that the tradition of Southwest weaving, as we know it today came to be. Situated along two major trade routes—the Camino de Real and Santa Fe Trail—weavers put the materials that migrated into their area to good use. The Spanish introduced the Churro sheep, which the locals bred to suit their own needs. Weavers spun their own yarns along with repurposing trade blankets and yarns from U.S. mills that made their way into the area, often re-spinning the yarn to get the hardness they required for warp. You can find many old rugs partially made from Pendleton and Manchester blankets and the yarns of Germantown (Pennsylvania) and Brown Sheep (Nebraska) mills. Upcycling is nothing new.
The Navajo pass down stories of how Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to weave. I believe these stories tell of the great potential of the Navajo weaver that existed long before they started weaving the textiles we recognize today. This potential was made manifest once the right materials and know-how showed up—Churro from the Spanish and the techniques and looms from the Pueblo—they adapted these concepts, tools, and materials for their own use, weaving their beautiful textiles as if they had always known how.
After having a chat with my students on this subject, I hustled up to Española to teach at the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center, a nonprofit founded in 1995. During the mid-nineties, weavers in the area noted that folks in their community were inheriting looms and had no idea how to use them. These inherited looms were largely made in the Rio Grande style based on floor loom introduced by the Spanish. For the past 20 years, the Center has provided a space where locals and travelers alike can learn regional fiber techniques, have a place to sell their work, purchase supplies, and connect with like-minded fiberists. How great to live in a place where grandma’s loom doesn’t end up on Craiglist!
Returning home, I was faced with a much-put-off deadline of weaving my Standard Incomparable piece. Textile artist Helen Mirra is organizing a global weaving exchange and exhibit. Last Fall, she put a call to weavers all over the world to weave a piece the length of their arm with stripes made from local naturally colored materials the width of their hand. Sitting down to the loom and thinking about all the weavers who are also sitting down to theirs was a really magnificent experience. I love the idea of my weaving ending up in some other part of the world where weaving is also alive and well.