Fiber art is one of the oldest forms of artistic expression, and New Mexico is one of the few regions left in the United States where fiber art is thriving. Over the past centuries, fiber art has played a crucial role in the economy of this region. To fully understand and appreciate New Mexico’s diverse culture, rich traditions, and colorful history, you have to understand the art.
What is Fiber Art?
Unlike most other art forms, fiber art has always had important utilitarian uses, such as clothing to protect and adorn, rugs and blankets to warm the living space and baskets to hold or process food. Fiber arts is also a critical outlet for creative expression and a form of storytelling.
More recently, fiber art has been appreciated just for being art, though that’s the exception, not the norm. Whether it be with yarn, fabric, fleece, or other materials, the labor put into fiber artwork and the stories embedded in the patterns and designs are all part of the craft itself. At the end of the day, fiber art aims to be aesthetically appealing and intriguing through its technique and what it depicts.
Different Regions have Different Artistic Influences
Several factors influence the kind of work you’ll find in different regions across the state.
One is the type of animal or plant the material is coming from. Throughout the state, various animals offer their wool and hair to this art form, such as the heritage breed the Navajo-Churro sheep, mohair goats, Angora rabbits, wolves, yaks, and (more recently) llamas and alpacas. These gentle creatures with unusually long necks do well in these high altitudes of over 7,000, as do their ancestors from the Andes. The texture of these animal’s coats plays an important role in the final product making it sturdy or luxurious.
New Mexican artists are resourceful, and will also use yucca fiber (known for its strength) or willow fronds harvested at the edge of rivers in baskets or furniture. The yucca and willow are also used to embellish gourds to make ornamental vessels.
Another factor is the landscape itself, which often inspires different textures in the artwork itself. Around Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo (Spanish for "Blood of Christ") Mountains are the southernmost range of the Rockies so named because their majestic peaks shine red during sunset. Volcanic eruptions formed the landscape around Los Alamos and Española, forming soft rocks that were carved by Puebloan people into cliff-dwellings. Further north, a tectonic chasm formed the spectacular rift in the Taos Plateau. These northern regions with colder climate are contrasted by southern regions that tend to have rainbow-colored rock walls, less rain, higher temperatures, and a starker contrast between beige rocks and colorful wildflowers.
The differing species of plant life also play a role in the style of art. Entire plants, roots, barks, and berries are frequently used for dyeing, creating fibers in a spectrum of colors. Making the dyes for the fabrics is a lot like making tea and can be extremely delicate work in and of itself. Each region has its own flora and fauna to work with, which influences the colors artists can choose from.
And finally, culture and tradition play an important role influencing the artwork as well.
New Mexico has a diverse population including many Puebloan people as well as descendants of the Spanish Conquistadors, and more recently, waves of settlers from all over the United States and around the world. Each group has their own style of fiber art, though they’ve shared, borrowed, and influenced each other over the centuries.
Taos, Chimayo, and Santa Fe are all centers for different traditions of weaving. Chimayo has several fifth- and sixth-generation weavers using the Rio Grande walking loom for intricate wool rugs with both traditional and modern interpretations of designs.
Experience the Fiber Arts for Yourself
For the full experience, visit one of New Mexico’s exceptional sheep ranches in Tierra Amarilla. At Tierra Wools, experience the shearing of close to 1,000 sheep in the spring or their homecoming each October when they return after spending the summer grazing in higher altitude of around 8,000 feet in the Carson National Forest above Canjilon Lakes.
You can also explore alpaca ranches to see firsthand where their soft fiber comes from. Victory Ranch in the majestic Mora Valley has more than 200 alpacas and the owners are more than happy to walk you through it. The best time to go is in the summer—babies are usually born this time of year and the shearing happens in June. Like many ranches, Victory sells alpacas, alpaca garments, and yarn, and also offers classes and workshops. The neighboring Mora Valley Spinning Mill offers tours of the mill and educates on how fiber is processed mechanically into roving or yarn.
There are almost an overwhelming number of options for anyone wanting to dive into the fiber art world in New Mexico, so a good place to start is the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center in Española (about a 90-minute drive north of Albuquerque), where you can find out anything you want to know about the craft itself, try things like Rio Grande style as well as Navajo weaving, classes for traditional floor looms, spinning, Colcha embroidery techniques, and shop for locally grown fiber, natural dyes and yarns to make your next scarf or tapestry.
Check out a Fiber Art Event
There are many events held year round in New Mexico that either focus on or support fiber arts.
The New Mexico Fiber Crawl is the biggest and most far-reaching of them all, as it encourages participants to visit galleries, yarn stores, ranches and farms, studios, museums and fiber centers from Albuquerque to Taos, the third weekend in May. The biennial Albuquerque Fiber Arts Fiesta is held in May on odd-numbered years.
There’s the East Mountain Fiber Farm and Studio Tour in early June, which gives visitors a chance to tour farms near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Also in June is an important Sheep is Life celebration, which focuses exclusively on the unique Navajo-Churro breed, wool, and woven products. This event offers a glimpse in the Navajo way of life paired with engaging discussions, workshops, and demonstrations.
If you’re in the region in the fall, the Taos Wool Festival held on the first weekend in October includes it all, from workshops and discussions to interactions with the animals themselves.
Santa Fe hosts many markets, such as the Spanish Market in July and December, featuring traditional Spanish Colonial art forms including Colcha embroidery and Rio Grande tapestry from both New Mexico and southern Colorado. The Santa Fe Indian Market is held twice a year at the end of August and November, and focuses entirely on Native American art.
Additional highlights around the state that embrace the fiber arts include Crownpoint Rug Auction, held every second Friday of the month, and the Toadlena Trading Post that supports weavers of many generations of the Toadlena and Two Grey Hills outposts. Regional Farmers’ Markets are also places where fiber arts works are showcased and sold. These markets often happen weekly and even year round in some places.
As you can see, people celebrate and practice fiber art all around New Mexico, no matter what time of year it may be. Their dedication to the craft shows how important it has been to the community and hopefully will continue to be long into the future.
Written by Melanie Hamlett for RootsRated in partnership with New Mexico.