Cataloging the Dan Fisher rug

Rio Grande weaving
Dan Fisher rug, 1939

For cataloging training, Tawney and I brought the Dan Fisher rug, one of the Rio Grande weavings, down to the conference table from its location in a storage room. Wearing cotton gloves, we slowly unrolled the weaving onto a plastic sheet. As we examined the textile with care and detail, we filled out the Inventory / Object Information sheet, one of which is completed for every object in the museum collections.

After measuring and photographing the rug, we made a long visual inspection, noting dye colors, bands and stripes and the ticking pattern at the edges of most of the stripes. Alternating the weft colors along a single pass through the warp threads makes a ticking pattern, as seen in the below image.

Ticking pattern (gray into yellow-gold and gray into rust) and small area of damage in blue area

We studied the condition of the rug, noting and photographing areas of minor damage and small areas of losses due to moth damage. One method used to combat moths and other insects is to freeze the textile for several days. This rug has been through the freezing process. Making record of the condition of the rug as it exists today allows confirmation of any changes during future inspections. Visible in the image at the right is a small area of damage within the blue stripe where the warp threads have broken, or sprung, leaving the weft yarns loose. When we had finished our notations about the artist, medium, condition, etc, we carefully rolled the rug, keeping it wrinkle-free, and carried it back to its storage home.

Cloth label with inscription, sewn to the back of the rug

This is one of the few Rio Grande textiles in the Luther Bean collection for which we have information on the weaver. (Unknown weavers are typical of Rio Grande textiles in museum collections.) An inscription in faded type on the cloth label sewn onto the back of the piece includes: San Luis, Colo. / Dan Fisher / Rug / July 1939.

Detail of the dye colors and ticking pattern in the stripes at each end of the rug

Later research uncovered the fact that Dan Fisher learned to weave during the Works Progress Administration project to revive the weaving craft held from 1935 to 1940 in San Luis, CO. He may have produced this rug as part of his work in the weaving classes. Fisher identified this piece as a rug. Visual inspection confirmed this use, as the yarns on the top surface of the rug are well flattened but the yarns on the underside of the rug are still quite plump.

Looms and Textiles

As part of my visit to the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) I wandered through the galleries, looking for exhibits that included artifacts similar to our collections at the Luther Bean Museum and specifically textiles. One gallery included both Rio Grande and Navajo textiles and also a small scale Navajo upright loom. Another gallery included a European horizontal loom and Rio Grande textiles. A loom holds warp threads in tension so that weft yarns may be woven through them. Textiles woven on these two looms have differing characteristics.

Navajo upright loom at the Millicent Rogers Museum

Navajo upright (vertical) looms have no moving parts and can be quite wide because the warp threads are strung on a horizontal pole that is mounted between two upright support poles or even between two trees. The loom can easily be taken apart and moved.

At the MRM, Navajo Chief          blankets behind the loom

 

The weaver sits, weaving the weft yarns from bottom to top through the vertical warps. The weaver then moves over and weaves the next area, using a tapestry stitch to weave the new weft yarns adjacent to the last area woven. The tapestry stitch results in what are known as “lazy lines” within the textile, as sections of textile are woven adjacent to each other to make the entire width of the textile.

As seen in the Chief blankets behind the loom in the image to the right, Navajo textiles typically have the warps running in the short dimension and the wefts running in the long dimension.

 

European style horizontal loom, Circa 1800,             at the Millicent Rogers Museum

Early European style horizontal looms were set into massive frames of hewn timbers, probably to accommodate the vibration and movement of the harnesses during weaving, and they are not easily moved. These looms are of a fixed width and produce fairly narrow textiles. The textile can be made wider by using one of two techniques, double width or two widths seamed together, as discussed in the Rio Grande Textiles Weaving Details blog entry. The textiles can be quite long, because the warps can be wound around the warp beam and unfurled as the weaving continues to grow in length. The weaver sits at the loom and continues to weave in the same position for the entire textile length, as the woven portion of the textile winds around the takeup beam.

European style horizontal loom, Circa 1800, at the Millicent Rogers Museum

These looms often have treadles (foot pedals) on which the weaver steps to raise a portion of the warp threads, called shedding (usually every other warp thread). The weaver then passes the shuttle (which holds the weft yarn) horizontally through the shed from end to end. Textiles woven on European style looms typically have the warps running in the long dimension and the wefts running in the short dimension.

Centinela Traditional Arts, Chimayo Weavers

Centinela Traditional Arts, Chimayo, NM

When I pulled into the driveway of Centinela Traditional Arts in Chimayo, NM, it was a relief after slaloming within a string of cars along a winding ribbon of two-lane black-top lined too close for comfort by gates and houses. Google maps did not indicate many landmarks along this road and it was by chance that I saw the sign and that there was no oncoming car at the moment I needed to turn left into the driveway or overshoot.

 

Spinning “prepared roving” wool onto a spinning wheel

I met Lisa Trujillo and her daughter Emily. They showed me around the shop and showed me newly shorn churro wool, wool that was “in the grease” (ready to be washed), and “prepared roving” (wool that has been washed and is ready to be spun) and Emily demonstrated the spinning of prepared roving wool on a spinning wheel.

 

 

Lisa took me out to the farm out back where the family keeps a small herd of churro sheep. They use this wool for all of their traditional weaving.

Churro sheep at the Centinela Traditional Arts farm

Churro was the original breed of sheep brought by the Spanish to this region in the 16th century, the wool from which has been used for weaving since that time. The sheep are of varied colors, accounting for the natural white (cream) and the range of natural colors in the wool of grays and browns to almost black. The fine undercoat is used for weft wool which makes the surface of a weaving. The coarse outer coat is strong and used for the warps (structure) of a weaving. I have seen photographs of this breed, always with symmetrical horns. But these sheep had horns of every size, pointing in all directions, making them very cute to look at.

 

Irvin Trujillo took me through a brief history of Rio Grande weaving, showing me examples from the textiles hanging on the walls. His is the seventh generation family of weavers who have passed their craft and dye recipes down to each succeeding generation. He showed me photographs of wedding blankets, woven and gifted within his family, which are Rio Grande textiles that are mostly natural white. He took me through the weaving room where three enormous looms, each with weavings in progress, are set up so they almost touch corner to corner along three walls of the room.

Outdoor dye shed

Last we looked through the outdoor dye shed where the family dyes all of the wool they use in traditional weavings using only natural dyes. Lining one wall were very large stock pots holding a variety of natural dyestuff materials and skeins of wool bathing in the dyes.

 

 

Chamisa dye bath

Some of the dyeing in process included chamisa (the blooms from rabbit brush which produce yellows) and indigo (blues). The intensity of the dye depends partly on how long the wool remains in the bath, from overnight to several days. Irvin showed me some of the dyestuff materials: cochineal (insects that produce a brilliant red), lumps of indigo (processed from the native Mexican plants), and brazilwood (pieces of heartwood that make reddish tans to golden yellows). Upon removal from the dye bath, the wool dries, and then is rinsed until the water runs clear.

Natural-dyed churro wool

In their shop hung many skeins of churro wool, natural-dyed in a myriad of colors, waiting to be used in weavings.

Taos Trade through Textiles, Part I

Lecture by Mark Winter and Chris Ferguson on Saltillo and Rio Grande Textiles, at the 2018 NMAM Conference, Taos, NM

Mexican Saltillo sarape

When I arrived a bit early to the “Taos Trade through Textiles” lectures, part of the 2018 NMAM Conference in Taos, NM, Mark Winter and his co-lecturer Chris Ferguson were busy arranging textiles on large tables, bringing each from a luggage cart loaded with textiles. They must have brought about fifty textiles to the conference.

From the opening moment of the lecture, I raced to try to keep up my note-taking and picture-taking with all that Mark was telling us about the textiles. The first lecture was on Saltillo and Rio Grande textiles, the second on Navajo textiles. He held up a sample textile for each major point and from time to time Chris would model a textile to demonstrate how it would have been worn. To my untrained eye, these were beautiful, pristine textiles, and Mark offered them to the audience to touch.

Mexican Saltillo sarape, ca. 1750

The first blanket shown at the lecture was a circa 1750 Mexican Saltillo sarape. The intricately woven Saltillo sarapes took a skilled weaver many months to weave and often used costly dyestuffs in the wool colors. They were very expensive, not much traded, and mostly worn by wealthy Mexicans. This sarape used a lot of cochineal red, a very expensive dye made from insects native to Mexico.

Taos was a geographic and cultural crossroads and the site of annual trade fairs. Taos was the northern end of the Camino Real route which went as far south as Mexico City and sites of other trade fairs. When the Spanish first arrived to the new world, they introduced the small and hardy churro sheep to “New Spain”. The wool from this breed, long, silky and not greasy, took dyes very well and was perfect for weaving. It quickly became the weaving material of choice.

Mark Winter adjusting the Rio Grande “brazilwood” dyed, banded blanket modeled by Chris Ferguson

The next group of weavings were the Rio Grande blankets. Some of the types of textiles produced included: sabanilla (loosely woven sheeting, sack cloth), jerga (loosely woven in stripes or plaids used for floor coverings and for saddle bags-the burlap of its day), colchas (embroidered sabanilla used for bed covers), sarapes and frasadas (ponchos and camp/utility blankets), indigo blankets, and the classic banded and striped blankets. We were shown examples of all of these types of textiles as Mark lectured on the history and evolution of the designs and dyestuffs.

Interestingly, Merino sheep were introduced in the mid 1800’s because they were better meat producers. However, their inferior wool (for weaving purposes) eventually contaminated the churro sheep, so that by the late 1800’s the quality of wool available for weaving had markedly deteriorated.

Colchas Exhibition

I visited the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area Center in Alcalde, NM (outside of Española, NM), to view the 5th Biennial NNM Spanish Colonial Colcha Embroidery Exhibit.

Embroidery on Sabanilla cloth (photograph is from the Colcha Exhibit flyer)

A Colcha is a type of Rio Grande textile in which decorative embroidery has been added to Sabanilla cloth. Sabanilla is a utilitarian coarsely woven textile, with yarns handspun from natural white wool, and was made primarily for sheeting. These embroidered textiles were often used as bed coverings.

Colcha Embroidery, Ca. 1865 – 1885, on loan from Mark and Linda Winter

I met Leland Chapin, co-curator of the exhibit, who showed me around the exhibit, the bulk of which was of contemporary Colcha embroidery work, still made in the traditional manner.  The exhibit did include four old large Colcha textiles, dating from circa 1865 to 1885, on loan from Mark and Linda Winter. The Colcha embroidery sometimes takes the form of patterns which cover a portion of the Sabanilla cloth, as in the above floral example.

Detail of Colcha Embroidery, Ca. 1865 – 1885, on loan from Mark and Linda Winter

Colcha embroidery may also completely cover the surface of the cloth, as in the example to the right. This is a detail of a large Colcha that was embroidered with the images of eight saints. In this piece, the texture of the embroidery yarns becomes the surface of the cloth.

 

 

 

Skeins of natural-dyed churro wool

A table at the rear of the exhibit held skeins of handspun, natural hand-dyed wool in a variety of colors, together with samples of some of the natural plants and minerals from which the dyes are made. The Luther Bean Museum does not own any Colcha textiles, but since these are a form of Rio Grande weaving, a future addition of this type would add to the variety of our Rio Grande textile collection.

Textile Display Methods

As part of my visit with Carmela Quinto, Curator of Collections at the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) in Taos, NM, we looked at some of the methods used to display textiles. After ascertaining that the textile is suitable for mounting or hanging, an appropriate display location is chosen to avoid exposing the textile to UV light or other possible damage.

Accession number on textile at MRM

While textiles may be temporarily identified with an acid-free paper tag, the permanent means of identification is to sew a strip of cotton muslin with the accession number marked in permanent ink onto the back of the textile. Archival markers are available for this purpose.

Weft-faced textiles such as Rio Grande textiles, are hung with the warp threads in the vertical position to give the best support to the textile.

 

Velcro strip attached to back of textile at MRM

One method to hang textiles for display uses Velcro strips. A strip of Velcro is sewn onto a slightly larger strip of cotton twill or muslin, which in turn is sewn onto the back of the textile at its vertical top end. Small textiles may have two short strips. Larger textiles have one strip that is the width of the textile. Very large or heavy textiles may have a number of strips, each the width of the textile, and at varying distances along the vertical dimension. The other side of the Velcro is attached to sealed or varnished wood strips that are affixed to the display wall.

Sleeve attached to the back of textile at MRM

Another method to hang textiles for display uses sleeves. Cotton muslin is cut to the width of the textile and sewn into a hollow sleeve. The sleeve is then sewn onto the back of the textile at its vertical top end, leaving the sleeve ends open. The sleeve can then accommodate either a flat metal bar or a varnished wooden dowel.

 

 

Textiles hung with flat metal bars at MRM

At left, flat metal bars work well with the spacers which are used to create an airspace between the textile and the display wall. Below, a wood dowel  through the sleeve, with eye screws at each end, works well for hanging a textile from the ceiling.

Textile hung with wood dowel at MRM

 

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.