Rio Grande Textile Weaving Details

When I visited the Millicent Rogers Museum exhibition, “A Feast for the Eyes, Rio Grande Blankets from the Collection”, I wanted to view the details of the two main forms of weaving the textiles. Rio Grande textiles are traditionally woven on European horizontal two-harness looms, which limit the width of the textile, although the length is only limited by the length of the warps. Textiles of four to five-and-a-half feet in width were usually made by one of two methods: double width or two widths seamed.

Double width detail, from MRM exhibit

For double width textiles an additional two harnesses were added to the loom behind and below the top harnesses and the weaver shuttled between the top and bottom harnesses in a continuous weave. For strength, additional warps placed closely together were added at the join of the top and bottom harnesses, resulting in the telltale ridges in the vertical center of textiles woven in this manner.

Two widths seamed detail, from MRM exhibit

Textiles made from two widths seamed are just that: two separate textiles are woven, using the same pattern of banding and stripes for each, and then seamed together along the vertical center. This method requires great weaving skill to create two separate textiles whose bands will perfectly align when the textiles are seamed together.
The Millicent Rogers Museum exhibition provided a myriad of examples of each weaving method. Although I had studied diagrams and seen photographs of these weaving methods, there is no comparison with the understanding that results from viewing actual textiles in detail.


A Whirlwind View of a Curator’s World

I arranged a visit with Carmela Quinto, Curator of Collections at the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) in Taos, NM, and met with her on Thursday September 27, 2018.
After brief introductions, we started right in on the many topics on which I had requested information, because there was so much to see and learn. As Carmela showed, demonstrated, and explained, I scribbled notes and took some pictures. We began with the storage area which is quite large relative to the storage we have at the Luther Bean Museum, but already filled with the collections of the MRM.

Textile storage at the Millicent Rogers Museum

Weavings and textiles are arranged in groupings of: Navajo, Pueblo, Hispanic, and Mexican. They are stored on very large custom-built racks, each approximately a seven to eight-foot cube in area, with rows of horizontal wood poles instead of shelves. Storing the weavings on these wood poles involves layers of materials to protect the textiles. The wood poles are wrapped in a tube of cardboard or PVC, then in acid-free tissue. The textile is wrapped around the tissue and then encased in cotton muslin which is longer than the textile. Finally, the muslin is tied at its ends with cotton ties, tightly, to keep out moths and insects.

Small textile storage

Small textiles are stored on much smaller versions of the horizontal wood poles, in drawers within cabinets. These are stored just as carefully with the layers of acid-free materials, and even though they are inside of a cabinet, are wrapped in the muslin with the cotton ties.

Because the MRM building was originally a courtyard home, it is not as tightly constructed as a modern museum structure might be. Moths are the biggest pest the museum faces in terms of its textiles, and the museum has developed storage and fumigation strategies to safeguard its collections.

Airspace between the wall and textile

An additional strategy has been to hang the display textiles away from the walls so that moths do not have a dark, seemingly enclosed place in which to hide. This airspace of about two inches also allows the staff to mildly shake each textile periodically to disturb any moth that may have temporarily stopped there. The textiles are hung by sliding a flat metal bar through a muslin sleeve that has been sewn to the back of the textile.

The MRM used grant funding to bring in experts to identify and classify many of their collections. Suzanne Baizerman, PhD, was brought in to identify, classify and assess the condition of weavings and textiles. Carmela has done much of the identification and assessment of the Hispanic sacred Retablos (3-dimensional carvings or sculptures of saints, usually painted) and Bultos (2-dimensional, often wood or metal, painted with images of saints), and this is her area of specialization.

All of the objects in the MRM collections have been photographed for documentation. This is different than photographing for publication. The documentation photography is for identification of the objects and the photographs are included in their database.


Visiting the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, NM


Millicent Rogers Museum exhibition, “A Feast for the Eyes, Rio Grande Blankets from the Collection”

In mid-September, I found several museums with collections similar to those held by the Luther Bean Museum and arranged to meet with Carmela Quinto, Curator at the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos, NM. On Thursday, September 27, 2018, I set out for Taos. It was a fine day for traveling, sunny and not too hot. I arrived at the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) at noon, to give myself time to look at the newest exhibition, “A Feast for the Eyes, Rio Grande Blankets from the Collection.”

The MRM, originally a private home, is a Santa Fe hacienda-style adobe structure, approximately square in plan, with many rooms varying in size, arranged around a central open courtyard. To reach the weavings exhibit, one progresses through a series of interconnected exhibition spaces with the assistance of a map, and passes through a two-foot thick archway into the exhibition space. You are greeted by a roomful of colorful Rio Grande weavings.

Three exceptional Rio Grande textiles at the center of the exhibition

Most are hanging vertically against the light blue painted walls, four are draped as they would have been worn over mannequin forms standing in each of the four corners, and three very large weavings hang vertically from the approximately twelve-foot ceiling in the center of the space. I spent a solid hour looking at each weaving and examining many closely, to note the differences in fiber textures, weaving styles, and patterning. Having done some preparatory reading and attempted to understand weaving methods from photographs in books, it was very helpful to view actual textiles up close.

A variety of weaving patterns

I was quite impressed with the skills displayed by the carders and spinners and the dyers who made the fibers, and by the beauty of the patterns and the joinings in the weavings made by these often unknown artisans of the past. The exhibited weavings are vibrant and very well preserved. They present a wide variety of weaving styles, dye colors, and patterning, from bands and stripes to Saltillo-inspired diamonds to Vallero stars and much more. I could very easily have spent the better part of a day in just this exhibition.

A Fortuitous Journey

Center of Southwest Studies Museum

Back in June 2018, prior to beginning my Salazar Rio Grande del Norte Center Internship at the Luther Bean Museum, I had the good fortune to accompany Tawney Becker (my mentor for the internship and currently serving as the museum’s collections manager) and Amy Kucera (museum committee member) to visit the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO. We met with then curator and conservator Jeanne Brako, whose area of specialization is weavings and textiles. We briefly toured some of the exhibited weavings and made note of display methods. The bulk of our day we spent reviewing their database structure, as a preliminary to possibly using a similar software. Midday we enjoyed lunch on campus with Jeanne and some of her staff. After finishing with the database review, we returned to weavings. We had brought along the Luther Bean Museum’s most recent acquisition, a Rio Grande weaving, to show Jeanne and garner her insight into the period, fibers, dyes, and region of origin.

Lopez Weaving of the Luther Bean Museum

It was a treat to see the textile removed from its wrapping and set out upon a work table large enough to hold it. Of course we all wore cotton gloves to handle the piece. After this, Jeanne took us down to their museum’s large basement storage area, specifically to view their storage methods for weavings and textiles. (What a pleasure and a luxury to have so much space in which to store a large collection of so many varied objects). The tall, wide, heavy-duty steel storage racks for textiles can each accommodate probably several dozen large weavings, each wrapped around its own horizontal pole. Each is securely covered against dust and insects. We also inspected some of the mounting hardware used to hang the weavings. The Center of Southwest Studies houses a wonderful museum and I hope to return to spend time among the exhibits.