Sunday, May 1, 2022

Pretty blankets.

I may have mentioned that I'm going to be volunteering at El Rancho de las Golondrinas here in Santa Fe this summer. It's a living history museum situated on the Camino Real, the royal road that led from Mexico City to Santa Fe, back when the Spanish were intent on conquering what's now the Southwestern United States. 

The museum covers a couple of hundred years of northern New Mexico history, from the Mexican settlement of the area in the 1700s to the turn of the 20th century. The building showing the earliest years is the placita, the little plaza, which depicts what life was like when the ranch was a paraje, or an official stop, on the Camino Real. Settlers had to make almost everything themselves, of course, being far from civilization as they were, and among the things they did was weave their own cloth. As you might imagine, that caught my interest. So that's the part of the museum where I'm planning to volunteer.

To prepare, I've been reading some stuff about the history of weaving in New Mexico. Churro sheep first came up from Mexico with Coronado in 1540, but the conquistadores weren't interested in making clothing from their flock -- instead, they ate them. It wasn't until Don Juan de Oñate arrived in 1598 that sheep were used for anything but food. That's when weaving began to take off. 

The Pueblo Indians were already weaving when Oñate showed up, but they grew and wove cotton, not wool, and their looms were different from the kind the Spanish brought with them to the New World. Weaving became a big part of the local economy, with tens of thousands of blankets being sent south to Mexico as trade items by 1840. 

I won't get too far into the weeds here. But as I was reading one of the handouts, some of the terms stood out for me. Saltillo-style weaving, for instance. I'd heard of saltillo tile -- the large terracotta tiles used in flooring across the Southwest -- but Saltillo weaving? What did it look like?

Dear Reader, I have googled and found photos, and now I will share them with you.

So the earliest weaving patterns were horizontal stripes. (I've stolen most of these photos from this webpage, and I hope Centinela Traditional Arts doesn't come after me for using them.) 

A striped blanket.
Horizontal stripes are stupid easy to weave. Even I can do them. You just go back and forth across the loom with one color 'til you decide to switch, and then you go back and forth with the new color, and so on. The earliest blankets were made with undyed yarn -- churro sheep come in shades of black, brown, and white -- although sometimes the yarn was dyed with natural materials. Chamisa, for example, makes a yellow dye. But not all natural dyes were local. Indigo blue had to be imported from Mexico. Cochineal red is made from little bugs collected from cacti -- no, really -- and it was also imported.

So the early blankets went south, and Saltillo blankets came north in trade. Those often had stripes at either end and a triangular motif in the middle. New Mexican weavers began to adopt and modify the style. 

Blanket with Saltillo elements, including the central medallion.
When the Santa Fe Trail was established in the 1820s, trade in New Mexico turned away from Mexico and toward the eastern United States. That's when commercial dyes became popular. By the mid 19th century, local weavers -- including many Navajo -- had moved away from natural dyes and began developing their own designs. One non-Indian style of weaving developed in New Mexico during this period is the Vallero. I found this example here. Isn't it dazzling?
A Vallero-style blanket.
As amazing as these later blankets and rugs are, I expect I'll stick with stupid easy designs for my own weaving projects. But I'm hoping to learn how to dye yarn at Las Golondrinas this summer. I'll let you know how it goes.


These moments of dazzling blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Get vaxxed!


Malcolm R. Campbell said...

I wish I had blankets like these on my bed. Very nice.

Lynne Cantwell said...

I wish I did, too.