Deep in a wide valley encircled by snow-capped mountains, dozens of pairs of soft brown eyes gazed at me with intense curiosity. A few of the creatures surrounding me gave me gentle nudges, while others spit noisily on the ground. As they inched closer, I couldn’t contain the primal urge any longer. Right in the face of my hosts, I let out a peal of laughter.
The residents of Victory Ranch reacted with nonchalance, clearly accustomed such a response, and continued to snuffle into my hands for the oats I had been given to feed them.
The 300 alpacas that call this 1,100-acre ranch home are actually on the low end of the proverbial food chain that I was exploring. While New Mexico has long been renowned as the terminus of the fabled Santa Fe Trail, I was moseying along a much more recently-blazed route, the state’s rural Fiber Arts Trail.
The Fiber Arts Trail was envisioned in 2005 at a gathering of New Mexico’s rural cultural tourism advocates, who listened as Becky Anderson talked about founding the North Carolina Craft Heritage Trails. Out of that meeting, the New Mexico Fiber Artisans coalition was forged. Soon, the state’s legislature funded New Mexico Arts, creating what is now an 1,800-mile circuit of more than 200 artisans at 71 destinations.
Departing downtown Santa Fe on a clear March morning, I headed east on Interstate 25 to Las Vegas. Not be confused with its bigger Nevada namesake, this railroad town featured Victorian-style houses decidedly uncharacteristic of an area home to 19 Native American pueblos. I then veered north on Route 518, a country road that took me higher and higher into the southern Rockies. The vegetation changed with the altitude—I passed Cottonwood bosques, or patches; through terrain forested with pinion pine and juniper trees; and then into high country of towering Douglas fir, spruce and groves of Aspen.
Early Spanish settlers introduced sheep to this region in the late 16th century, when herders would take their flock into the mountains for a month or two to plumpen them on the summer grass. During these times apart from home and family, often pining for a loved one, the lonely shepherds created what is known as “Aspen art,” graffiti carved into the trees.
With multiple stops for photography lengthening my journey, two-and-a-half hours later I reached Victory Ranch. The spectacular expanse upon which it sits made me feel I had gone as far as Patagonia—an illusion enhanced by the herd of alpaca grazing.
I was greeted by Marc Bunting, who co-manages the enterprise. Marc told me that owners Ken and Carol Weisner had run the place as a cattle ranch until Ken read an article saying “any idiot can raise alpacas.” In 1991, the Weisners bought ten of the animals, and began phasing out the cattle.
“Alpacas require much less space than cattle--seven alpacas can happily graze on one acre,” elaborated ranch manager Darcy Weisner. “Alpacas do not challenge fences, or climb onto cars and walls like goats. Alpacas are small--between 100-200 pounds is a big one--so they are easy for me to handle. I can care for our whole herd by myself--no need for big cowboys. They are gentle, intelligent, and respond to TLC.”
Alpacas are members of the camel family, now completely domesticated for their soft wool. The animals do well in the 7,000-foot-plus elevation of Northern New Mexico because they are native to the Andes, built for high elevation living, with enlarged hearts and lungs.
The alpaca’s fleece is harvested in June because the animals are clipped down to their skin and the temperature can go below freezing through May. Shearing is a four-person production, with someone holding the front legs, another the hind quarters, and a third person the head, while a fourth wields the electric razor. Each alpaca yields between two to ten pounds of fleece.
“Their fiber can be finer than cashmere,” said Darcy. “Its very light weight as it is a hollow hair which gives it unique insulating qualities. Much lighter weight than wool, but can be much warmer and softer. Alpaca is hypo-allergenic with no lanolin. We analyze every alpaca’s fiber every year when we shear. We send a sample off to a lab which analyzes micron count amongst other things. This helps us with our breeding program as well as with deciding whose fiber should be sent to a mill, and whose will be handspun or sold as raw fiber in our store or online.”
Unlike many other ranches that only raise animals, Victory also sells alpaca yarn and garments, describing their operation as “shovel on up.” However, the wool is not spun here, but at mills.
As luck would have it, a mill was a mere mile down the road.
At the non-profit Mora Valley Spinning Mill, Director Carla Gomez walked me through the factory floor and the process of transforming hefty bags of tangled fur into thousands of skeins of vibrantly-colored, silky wool. The industrial revolution was very much in evidence: stainless steel tanks with commercial centrifuges that “scour” grease from the wool; car-sized dryers; a carding machine from Italy with teeth that combs the wool into a fine mesh; and a coning machine used to ply the wool that dates to the 1800s. A staff of eight--equipped with ear plugs--operates the heavy duty machines that today produce about 50 pounds of wool a day—Carla hopes to double that by year-end.
She sees the mill as both an economic engine and preserver of “heritage” breeds of sheep. Carla said that like many other commodities, species of sheep raised have become homogenized, with an emphasis on quantity and high production. Among the fleece processed here is that of the Lincoln sheep, bred in Great Britain to produce the longest, most lustrous coat in the world, and now endangered.
“For a small farmer, the animals that are raised are a part of the family,” Carla said. “When an animal is raised for its wool, fiber is a harvested crop, just like picking a peach off of a tree that is ripe and sweet. By purchasing a yarn that is made in rural America and from the small farms that raise our wool, the consumer should recognize that there is love and care in the product.”
Carla first moved to Mora Valley as a self-described hippie in the 1970s--her weaving studio at that time had no water or electricity. With one grandfather a weaver and the other a sheep rancher, Carla has been passionate about fiber since using a table loom as a child. After an 18-year stint as a museum textile curator, in 1998 she sought to help a low-income woman learn to weave. That endeavor ultimately led to the creation of Tapetes de Lana, or Weavings of Wool.
Located next door to the mill, Tapetes is housed in a former mercantile building, its exterior emblazoned with a brightly-hued mural of a flock of sheep in an emerald pasture. Carla said more than 100 local artisans have been taught to weave at the facility, which serves as a community center, weaving studio, and gallery.
From Mora, I drove up and down the side of Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then through the Kit Carson National Forest, where huge sheathes of icicles clung to the cliff face along the road, their shape mimicking the form of the crimped wool at the mill. I passed the Sipapu Ski Resort, the rooflines of its lodges peering out from a deep bank of snow.
Approaching Santa Fe from the north, the highway carved through a lunar landscape of red rocks, which glowed in the light of the late afternoon, a time of day photographers aptly call the “magic hour.” Known as “hoo doos” in geological parlance, one of these formations is called "Camel Rock,” and bore a strong resemblance to one of the hump-backed animals at rest.
The next morning, I prowled the back roads of San Pedro, a small town just north of Santa Fe, and was soon ensconced in a cozy couch at Earth Arts. Proprietor Liesel Orend spun her story in the high-ceilinged studio flooded with sunlight. She’d moved to the area in the late 1990s from an intense job in Boulder, and took a class in weaving as she settled in.
“As soon as I started, it was as if I already knew how to do it,” she marveled.
She was quickly drawn to the idea of creating colors from plants, and establishing a dye garden made sense, given the limited range of local plants.
She both gathered seeds in the wild and bought them from others. In what she called a bit of serendipity, she found sand cherry growing in her yard, which produces a unique olive green color. Woad, which she grows for its light blue color, requires care--it’s an invasive plant. Other species require patience— madder roots, which give Liesel red, can take three years to establish.
She commented wryly, “It can be work to get native plants like cota and sumac to move into the neighborhood!”
With marigolds come her yellow hues; from coreopsis and cota, she creates oranges shades. She observed that contrary to popular opinion, natural dyes are not all muted and dull, stating that turquoise is about the only dye color that can’t be created non-synthetically. Liesel now teaches several natural dyeing classes, including one called “The Many Faces of Cochineal,” a much-used ingredient that yields more than forty colors—and happens to be an insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus.
“Living in New Mexico I find myself influenced by Native American values and ways of being associated with living in close connection with the land,” Liesel said. “Asking permission and making offerings of cornmeal while gathering natural dye plants, and being conscious of conserving resources are some ways this manifests.”
She said that creating the dyes is akin to making tea—the plants are cooked until the water is colored and then the plant material is strained out and the colored dye bath remains. Prior to dyeing, a “mordant” is used to prepare the yarn, which is what makes the color stick. Extracting blue from indigo, however, sounded like an involved recipe practically requiring a chemistry degree. The process takes more than a week and involves solubility, Ph balances, and removing oxygen through fermentation.
Liesel agreed that producing indigo blue is more complicated but said “How can you not bother with blue—because then you do without green and purple.”
She proudly acknowledged that creating dyes is a craft, saying “We have a policy in class—if anyone wonders what color a plant might make, they have to try it and find out.”
Liesel’s tapestries have won first place awards at the Albuquerque Fiber Arts Fiesta and three Grand Champion awards at the Taos Wool Festival. We walked about her studio and she gave me a bit of history on the pieces hung on its walls.
“The many legends, myths, and stories provide a backdrop of meaning for my work.” Liesel said. “Worldwide today, and throughout history, different cultures have had similar metaphors about weaving and the web of life, or spinning and the strands of time. In the end, though, I am only conscious of the weaving developing in front of me: the beauty of the cloth, the dancing symbols, the emerging patterns, and the creation of the unfolding design.”
As I departed, Liesel asked “Have you been to the Fiber Arts Center? It’s really a hub - I am in and out of there 18 times a week.”
And so I headed to neighboring Espanola, a sprawling suburb of Santa Fe. Inside the Fiber Arts Center’s adobe store front was a beehive of activity—a tapestry artist was at work on a loom, a spinning class had just broken up, and a couple of women browsed through the library’s bookshelves. A swarm of fiber arts fans buzzed around a bountiful display of merchandise—pictorial and abstract tapestries, rag rugs, jerga blankets, shawls, felted scarves, willow baskets, Colcha embroidery, quilts, and handmade paper, to name but a few.
Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center director Diane Bowman said that the good sold here are made by the Center’s diverse membership of more than 380 members. 20% of the residents of Rio Arriba County here are below the poverty line, with unemployment at close to 10%.
“Weaving offers a way to earn income for the elderly, women with young children, the many people who are under-employed here, or live in isolated areas where work is not available,” she said. "Artists need markets for their work beyond once-a-year studio tours, or the annual Spanish Market or Indian Market. The Fiber Arts Trail is an effort to bring the market to the artists, many of whom don’t have the resources to access national markets.
EVFAC was founded in 1995 by a small group of weavers who learned that there were many area families who had inherited looms but who had little knowledge of the heritage and techniques of Northern New Mexico textiles practiced by their grandparents. With donated looms and space in a local church, these weavers began to teach weaving. Thanks to a grant, EVFAC rented a space, hired a manager, and opened its door for business in October 1996. Today, the Center is a nonprofit organization with a staff of five.
On another day, as part of an organized “sampler” cultural tour run by South West Adventures, I visited Centinela Traditional Arts in Chimayo, about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. The walls of the sunny gallery were alive with vibrant color, hung with rugs and tapestries in patterns ranging from simple to eye-popping.
I was astonished to realize that the studio I was in was run by Irvin and Lisa Trujillo, both award-winning weavers whose work is collected by museums across the country, including the Smithsonian. The day before I had admired several of Irvin’s pieces featured at the Museum of International Folk Art as part of its exhibit of New Mexico “Masters” by the National Endowment for the Arts. Lisa is on the board of the Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center.
Crossing through a narrow showroom festooned with a string of blue prize ribbons, I entered a big room anchored by two large standing looms, between which stood Irvin, a seventh-generation Rio Grande weaver who was taught the work as a child by his father. Talking as he did “shuttle” work, carrying the yarn back and forth across the weaving, Irvin explained that there is physicality to the craft, and that part of the learning curve involves cultivating balance--each person has a more dominant side of their body.
I learned that the term "Rio Grande" encompasses the entire weaving tradition of Hispanic New Mexico, dating back 400 years ago to its settlement here in 1598. Although the area has spent much of its history in relative isolation, trade and political upheaval have wrought major changes in culture and, in turn, weaving production.
Irvin has worked with the range of historic blanket styles: Rio Grande from the Spanish Colonial Period, the Saltillo from the Mexican Period, the Vallero from the American Colonial Period, and the Chimayo from the Industrial Revolution Period. Eventually, he began to combine elements from different styles in the same piece and today is recognized both for his mastery of traditional styles and a spirit of innovation.
“My pieces may interpret my Hispanic history and culture, document events of the modern world, or make observations based on what is happening in my life,” Irvin said.
Touring the Fiber Arts Trail, I experienced the rich tapestry of the area’s textile heritage from “sheep to shawl,” discovering amazing artistry and a cottage industry nestled along the nooks and crannies of this land of enchantment.
For more information about Fiber Arts in New Mexico :
- New Mexico Fiber Arts Trail
- Victory Ranch
- Espanola Valley Fiber Arts Center
- Great Southwest Adventures
- Centinela Traditional Arts