G.M., who works at a local secondhand store, has plenty of Fiesta costumes up for sale and a Rio Grande vest that is evocative of the Spanish Colonial traditions we all celebrate as part of Fiesta events. Every year, the shop puts out Spanish-flavored textiles for Fiesta. G.M. wonders about Spanish-style textile weavings and their values.
The story is one of domination of powers that resulted in a style of Southwest weavings identified forever as “Mexican style.” But oddly, the style originated outside of Mexico, and by extension, outside of Spanish craft arts. It began with the New Mexico weavers, American Indian textile artists, pre-colonization.
A misnomer, the style is referred to as Spanish Colonial fiber art, which has a history much older than the arrival of the Spanish to North America.
Thousands of years of weaving occurred before the first Spanish arrivals in the 15th century to the Southwest regions.
American Indians had perfected textile weavings in fibers as distinct as human hair, dog fur and native plant materials. Mats, clothing and vessels: all could be woven of this sturdy stuff. Discovering the crop called cotton, American Indians trained the cotton crop to accept high altitudes and short growing seasons, and then they developed a portable loom on which to weave the material.
But cotton was to become the secondary material for weavers, who had for centuries mixed cotton with other fibers. Although we think of sheep and their wool as native to the West, it was Juan de Onate (1598) who brought Mexican settlers to parts of New Mexico, along with the wool-producing Churro sheep. Thus, for the next 300 years, American Indian weavers fought to maintain a style of weaving that was being supplanted by wool.
The Spanish introduced the European treadle loom, which was designed for woolen weaving. American Indian weavers were forced to learn and labor. The colonists opened the first textile “factory” in Santa Fe in 1638 that exported weavings back to Mexico City.
Such a tale of strife is told by G.M.’s little woven vest: It is wool, and wool was the textile of choice for Spanish Colonial export, made on a European-style loom. American Indian workers longed for their own cotton and their own looms. This lead to a bloody revolt, but Spanish dominance resumed in 1694, establishing wool as the dominant fiber for Spanish Colonial textiles.
What follows is a forced blending of two cultures that resulting in the Rio Grande style of woolen ornamentation we see on G.M.’s vest. In 1790, two master weavers were sent from Mexico City to instruct and rule over the American Indian weavers. A center for weaving wool was established in Albuquerque. Mexico City loved the style: In the 50 years that followed, 20,000 pieces (rugs, mats and serapes) were exported to Mexico City.
Another outside influence was the railroad and the development of the tourist market. When we think that a souvenir of a trip has always existed as a concept, the idea of bringing home something culturally distinctive (and affordable) had its origins with the coming of the railroad. The famed Chimayo textile industry was born out of supplying local trading posts with Southwest blankets, collected by tourists.
G.M.’s vest is mid-20th century, but it is the result of cultural cross currents interpreted on textiles for at least eight generations in the Chimayo Rio Grande style. We think of these woolen vests, serapes and blankets as Mexican, and by extension Spanish Colonial, but this fabric art is anything but that. Those saltillos and triangles, stripes and stars, woven on the two-harness walking loom, was a product made for import to Mexico and Spain by American Indian weavers in New Mexico under colonial domination.
If G.M.’s vest was 19th century, it would be worth $2,000. (A telltale mark of an older piece of Rio Grande weavings made to be worn would be silver buttons, coins pounded into roundness.) But G.M.’s vest is mid-20th century, signally the re-awakening of a craft tradition on the brink of extinction, due to the homogeneity of clothing styles and the demands of a mass market for cheaply made woolen blankets and coats in the late 19th early 20th centuries.
The style was rediscovered by the generation that brought us “counterculture” — the kids of the 1960s, who wore ethnic clothing as a badge of “difference.” G.M.’s vest is worth $200.