The two Japanese women got off the plane in Albuquerque for only one reason. Starting in New York, they had been shopping their way across the U.S. for a week. New Mexico was their last stop before heading to Los Angeles for their flight home. What were they looking for, cowboy boots? No, they both already had plenty of those. Turquoise jewelry? That was for another trip. They wanted just one thing:
A Chimayó jacket.
Sophisticated, fashion-savvy Japanese are some of the biggest customers of the centuries-old New Mexico wool-weaving tradition. In the picturesque Hispanic settlement of Chimayó, set in a pastoral valley between snow-peaked mountains a beautiful 45-minute drive north of Santa Fe, the Trujillo and Ortega families and their neighbors carry on a textile heritage brought with the Spanish in 1630.
Ironically, not many Americans have heard about or can recognize Chimayó weavings, but for those in the know, they are esteemed and sought-after cultural masterpieces. Master weaver Irvin L. Trujillo, owner with his wife, Lisa, of Centinela Traditional Arts on Route 76 in Chimayó, was honored this past year at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., with a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship. The NEA fellowship is granted annually to only a dozen artists across the country. Trujillo's prized rugs and wall tapestries hang in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian.
Walk into Trujillo's Weaving Shop further down Route 76, and you can see how it all began. Dominating the entrance to the adobe studio and shop is a one-hundred-year-old wooden two-harness, counterbalance loom, just like the ones the Spanish brought along with their sheep. Carlos Trujillo and his sister, Carol, [relatives of the Trujillos at Centinela] are the seventh generation in their family to weave; the old floor-loom belonged to their grandfather, Encarnacion. Carlos Trujillo stands at the loom weaving a rug based on a 19th century pattern in earth tones of brown, grey and warm white. His bobbins, hand made over a century ago of apricot wood, gleam with the patina of long use. These Trujillo rugs are known for a distinctive triple warp of wool that makes them sturdy and long-wearing, though all Chimayó weavings are durable and meant to last a lifetime.
Chimayó rugs and textiles have a unique pattern. It emerged around the beginning of the twentieth century, and basically consists of a stripe at each end with a center design. It arose from other, still older weaving traditions. The stripes came from the Rio Grande textiles of the early Spanish settlers, who wove for practical, utilitarian needs, mostly blankets. Later, they wove rugs which were traded throughout the Southwest. The original Rio Grande weavings were all weft-faced stripes in indigo blue, brown and white, and longer in shape than they are wide. The central Chimayó motif came out of Saltillo weavings from Mexico, which incorporated a multi-colored serrated diamond in the middle of an open field of color.
But while all Chimayó weavings may look the same, no two are ever alike. No matter which rug, jacket, vest, leather-trimmed purse, pillow or table runner you pick up-it's different. The color combinations always change; the central motif can expand or contract; a narrow geometric lozenge can morph in infinite variations. The rugs look spectacularly different, ranging from tightly woven two-color bands to intricate, intersecting geometric shapes in a kaleidoscope of colors, especially at Centinela Traditional Arts in Irvin Trujillo's pieces.
He started weaving at the age of 10, learning from his father, celebrated weaver Jacobo Ortega Trujillo. "My father's philosophy was to weave a new design for each piece, and in doing that I developed a vocabulary of design," Trujillo said. Although he follows traditional techniques and weaves only five to eight pieces in a year, Trujillo has combined his research into old rugs and textiles in collections and museums with a love of innovation. "We don't feel that Rio Grande is a constraining tradition," said Lisa, also a master weaver. "We're always learning from other cultures and concepts in textiles."
Recently Irvin Trujillo wove a rug using weft ikat, an ancient technique found in Guatemala and Indonesia. He discovered evidence of the technique in some Rio Grande weavings made around 1800. He has said that he goes to the loom "with 350 years of history. I am trying to approach the spirit of the old pieces," Trujillo continued. "I need to learn from the past, but also how to live in my time and environment."
Centinela and Ortega's Weaving Shop, nearby on the historic Plaza del Cerro, both hand weave a wide range of Rio Grande rugs and blankets as well as the Chimayó style. Including Trujillo's Weaving Shop, all of them also carry woven tabletop items and accessories, like a cool legal pad portfolio at Centinela. Ortega's in addition weaves reproduction Navajo rugs, and carries Native American jewelry and pottery, tooled leather belts and some handsome hand-carved wooden hangers for displaying pieces on the wall. Trujillo's Weaving Shop carries traditional carved santos and folk art of aspen and cedar from Chimayó and Cordova, Native American jewelry and pottery and lively and colorful ojos de dios hangings made by a Navajo family.
As for the jackets and coats that the Japanese shoppers came for, the choices are abundant. Each studio tends to have its own versions of the Chimayó pattern. Trujillo's Weaving Shop, for instance, creates a finely woven four-color motif in unusual color combinations. At Ortega's Weaving Shop, the well-tailored coats and jackets resemble the ones which first appeared in the 1920s. The traditional stripes run along the sleeves and collar, and large motifs are woven into the back and front. Ortega's also makes a striking knee-length sleeveless vest where the exploded motif shows to advantage down the center back.
"Everything is individually hand made," said Robert Ortega. "We don't have a book of patterns." As he noted, the biggest changes come in the cut of the collars and in more colors choices dictated by fashion trends. Robert Ortega and his brothers, Andrew and Chris, are the ninth generation to continue the family weaving tradition. Their grandfather built the first shop next to the family home in 1900, which over the years has expanded into the current spacious studio and gallery. They employ over twenty weavers, and the soft "thunk" of the busy looms plays a refrain in the background as you browse the store.
At Centinela Traditional Arts, Lisa Trujillo shows an example of a best-selling vest with a distinctive "flame" pattern on the back that the Trujillos created. Knowledgeable and generous with information, she also teaches weaving and with Irvin has written a book, Centinela Weavers of Chimayó: Unfolding Tradition. Centinela has re-introduced using natural dyes and also asks their weavers, most of whom work from home, to sign their work with a simple mark to acknowledge the artisanship of their craft. Like Ortega's and Trujillo's Weaving Shop, Centinela can do custom orders which take about six weeks to complete, and provide color cards for clients to make a selection.
Over at Ortega's Weaving Shop, employees are filling big boxes for a shipment to Japan. It's astonishing to learn that an internationally recognized art form is not available in a store in Santa Fe. There's a crying need for either a local museum or the state of New Mexico to sponsor a venue in town to carry Chimayó weaving, as well as some of the other Hispanic traditional arts.
On the other hand, it's always great to hit the road to Chimayó.
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