The Río Grande is a 1,800-mile-long river that begins in southwest Colorado and flows south through central New Mexico to southwest Texas, where it turns southeast and forms the border between the United States and Mexico, finally emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. Communities along the river have available the natural resources needed to weave and dye cloth.
The Anasazi people settled the Río Grande area as early as 1300 AD. They harvested corn, beans, squash, and cotton, and made lightweight garments from cotton called mantas. Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived in the Río Grande Valley in 1540 with plans to conquer the area. Only with the arrival of Don Juan de Oñate in 1598, however, was the region colonized. To produce woolen textiles, the Spanish settlers brought tools to build and operate intricate Spanish treadle looms. For wool, they also brought churro sheep. The fabric created was of a fixed length and width. The technology of the treadle loom had revolutionized textile production in Europe, transforming it from a domestic task into a heavily regulated guild industry.
Before the treadle loom was introduced, there were three types of looms found in the Río Grande: the backstrap, the horizontal ground, and the upright or vertical, the one most commonly used along the Río Grande.
The Spanish discouraged trade with the United States and territories that bordered New Mexico. As a result, Río Grande weavers were dependent on New Spain (now Mexico) and traded blankets for many things including corn and cattle. To encourage the development of the weaving and textile trade in the Río Grande region, two master weavers, brothers Juan and Ignacio Bazan, were sent from Mexico City to Santa Fe in 1807 to teach local youth techniques of weaving.
The following is a list of textile products produced between 1750 and 1809, according to the inventories and wills of local tradesmen from that time:
• sarapes (blankets for wearing)
After the successful Mexican revolt from Spain in 1821, there was a tremendous growth in production of textiles in the Río Grande area. For the first time, trade was encouraged between the United States and Río Grande merchants. The Santa Fe Trail opened in 1821 and made trade with the United States feasible. The trail also simplified trade with California and the western territories.
The arrival of the railroad in the late 1880s ushered in many changes to textile production in the Río Grande. In addition to tourists, trains brought new synthetic dyes with more color options and a greater availability of commercial yarns. Weavers had relied for dyes on plants rich in tannic acid such as juniper, oak, and wild cherry because they helped fix or make permanent the color to wool or other fabric.
The type of wool being produced also changed. The fine, soft churro sheep were interbred with the wiry-haired merino sheep, which were introduced to the area around 1858. By the 1890s, this breeding meant new types of yarn could be woven.
The styles and textures of New Mexico weavings continue to change and develop. Irvin and Lisa Trujillo and Agueda Martinez work within the Río Grande tradition, but they produce innovative designs and introduce new colors in their textiles.
Agueda Martinez traced her heritage to the Navajo and the early Spanish settlers along the Río Grande in the sixteenth century. Her tapestries are influenced by the Mexican Saltillo serrate diamonds and also by the variations the settlers introduced to Navajo stepped motifs and Pueblo patterns of solid, alternating stripes.
“Some people call this [pattern] with lines ‘Río Grande.’ Some with more detail are called ‘Colonias’; others are ‘Chimayó’ and others ‘Mexican.’ Mexican or American--call it what you want. . . . I don't call my [weavings] anything. I put my initials on it and it's mine,” she said.
Quote is taken from interviews with Martinez by Andrew Connors in June and July 1995.
Irvin Trujillo and his wife, Lisa, continue the Río Grande weaving tradition in Chimayó, New Mexico. Irvin and his late father, Jake Trujillo, who taught him to weave, ran a weaving business together for many years. Although Irvin and Lisa, who learned to weave as an adult, use traditional Saltillo designs, they also weave innovative tapestries that sometimes communicate personal stories and are considered fine art.