It was another one of our days on the road that had a serendipitous end. We had set out for a farm tour, only we were a week early. In the small hamlet of Los Ojos a stone’s throw from Tierra Amarilla, we discovered Tierra Wools. If I hadn’t needed a restroom, we probably wouldn’t have stopped, we were also hungry. Food trumps touring every time in our lives. Not only did we discover a wonderful treasure, it was the Feast Day of Santiago. We got to enjoy a church social dinner.
Tierra Wools, now an LLC, started as a weaving co-op in 1983 to keep the Spanish arts of weaving, spinning and hand-dying alive. It was part of Ganados del Valle, a community organization whose mission is “empowering rural people to create sustainable economies by building on cultural and agricultural resources.” The historic building they call home, built in 1895, was originally T.D Burns’ Trading Post.
Details left from the building’s early days can be seen in Tierra Wool’s front room, called the Sala, to the right of the main entrance. The walls are mudded (a traditional New Mexican plastering technique) and the ceiling is tin, as was common in the late Victorian era. The original fireplace is still there. You can see the building’s original adobe walls in the wool storage room that was added on to the building.
There is a rich history of sheep and wool in this area. The first Churro sheep arrived from Spain in the 16th century. The colonists got the breed by default. They were not allowed merino sheep who were exclusively reserved for royalty in those days. Churros were well-suited to Northern New Mexico’s dry climate and rugged mountain terrain. The herding tradition was taken up by the Navajo Indians. Today the breed is called “Navajo-Churros,” a name coined in 1986 to honor the two cultures involved with the breed. (For more on the Churros sheep, see the “sidebar” at the end of this post.)
Through the shop, with its displays of beautiful hand-woven rugs and other hand-woven items and weaving related stock, is the weaving room. The large room is full of looms, used both by the shop’s owners and for classes. No longer co-op, Tierra Wools sells yarn to local weavers who can bring their finished work to the shop where it’s sold on consignment. Today, about 40 local weavers display and sell their work at Tierra Wools.
Almost everything at Tierra Wools is done “the old way.” Most of the wool comes from locally-raised sheep. After arriving at Tierra Wool, the wool is carded and washed and then sent off to be spun. Hand-spinning, a labor-intensive process, yields less than a pound an hour. A commercial spinning machine yields about 150 pounds a day. The spun wool is returned to Tierra Wools for dying To honor the hand-spun tradition, there is always at least one basket of hand-spun yarn for sale in the shop. While they use some commercial dyes, most of the wool is colored with plant-based dyes. These plants are gathered by hand. The wool is dyed in the recently enclosed area adjacent to the weaving room. The spun wool is hand-dipped in dye vats over fires fueled by local cedar and piñon.
The commercial dyes yield more vibrant colors, but it is the softer hued hand-dyed wools that is their specialty. Lupe Valdez, the woman in charge of the natural dying process, has her own formulas. The color palette yielded by these dyes is varied. One plant variety can yield a range of colors and hues. Both the length of dying time and the mordents (substances used to set the color) can affect the outcome. Cochineal, a little beetle found on nopal cactus blossoms yields hues that run from deep red to pink. Yarns colored with natural dye hang from pegs on the wall. A variety of plants including purple aster (which is surprisingly a yellow color), piñon, black walnut (yielding a purple color), Kota (a Navajo tea), madder root, yellow onion skins, indigo and more are used to create the rainbow hues. There is also yarn in the sheep’s’ natural colors; dark and light gray and off-white. Sophia De Yapp oversees Tierra Wools’ commercial dying. She has her own formulas for her rich colors.
There are two large rooms in the shop. The bright main room has rugs and other woven pieces artfully displayed. Behind the counter hangs a photo of a youngish Robert Redford. Kay Raymond, the delightful transplanted Washington State resident who was running the shop and acted as our guide through it on this summer Sunday, says that the actor/director discovered the Tierra Wools co-op while filming his 1988 film, The Milagro Beanfield War. In the photo, a young-looking Redford is wearing a hand-woven jacket the co-op gave him. To support the co-op’s mission he donated part of the proceeds from the film’s Hollywood premier to them.
Tierra Wools and the charming hamlet of Los Ojos are worth a trip, especially if you are a weaver, knitter or just appreciate beautiful things. Make a day of it. There are a lot of things to see along the way. Just ask us!
If you can’t get to Tierra Wools in person, they do mail order.
Note: The Navajo herds, at one time numbering over a million sheep, were almost driven to extinction during the Federal government’s “Stock Reduction” era in the 1930s. By 1972, the herds of Churro sheep, that at one time numbered over one million were reduced to 450 head. Dr. Lyle McNeal, Carnegie Professor in the Agriculture Department at Utah State in Logan, has worked with the Navajos since 1977 to reestablish the “heritage” breed. He also worked with the farmers in Los Ojos through Ganados del Valle, the group that Tierra Wools came out of. Currently, there are a little over 6,000 registered Navajo-Churro sheep, but McNeal thinks the number may be considerably higher. Some breeders don’t register their sheep. Today, he works with the Navajos, Hispanics and Anglos to increase the breed. ‘It’s quite to multi-cultural experience,” and clearly he loves it. You can read about the breed’s history on the Navajo Sheep Project’s website.
If you want to take a trip through Northern New Mexico including Los Ojos and Tierra Wools, The Santa Fe Traveler can plan a unique day for you.