The Thread of New Mexico

Tracing the development of fiber and textile art
in New Mexico produces a rich tapestry.

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The New Mexico tapestry is best woven in the words of the artists who give the thread, yarn, natural and processed fiber its life and form . . . sometimes carrying on ancient traditions, sometimes pushing re-interpretations of tradition, sometimes manipulating or incorporating fiber to create a shape or object which is entirely unexpected. The passions and obsessions that seem to grip fiber artists are evident in their work and their words. While it may be a meditative occupation, the energy and grit that exemplifies the fiber artist's dedication is reminiscent of the devotion of nest-building birds.

Nancy Kozikowski

Tapestry artist

Kozikowski tapestry

Nancy Kozikowski
Wool tapestry
DSG Fine Art remote

There is a word in Navajo for "weaving too much. " I believe it refers to forgetting about the world—being obsessed, the way we feel about something new, infatuation, the beginning when everything seems so simple.

As a young woman, I was working on a mandala design in my mother's studio. Her housekeeper came in and asked why I would work on such a tedious project. I thought about the housekeeper and how she had the entire property under control and in order. It was unimaginable to me how she could order and maintain such a large space. I was happy to be able to control a two-foot square piece. This is when I realized the point and necessity of the spirit line which is traditionally woven into Navajo weavings. The spirit line is a thread that originates in the center and breaks through the border of the weaving so the spirit can escape; it is a bridge into and out of reality . . . or a tether to tie the piece to the world.

For me, it is there so my spirit can escape the obsession with the perfection of the piece. Through the Thread of New Mexico I have attempted to share this rich experience. In 1992, as a fund raiser for Magnifico! Albuquerque's Festival of the Arts, we set up a traditional Spanish, two-harness loom and encouraged people to weave an inch for ten dollars! By weaving a stripe one would learn how a loom works and something about the history of textiles in New Mexico. I based the Thread design on a traditional Rio Grande pattern. Accomplished weavers from diverse backgrounds such as Hopi, Navajo, Spanish, French, Anglo wove their characteristic patterns at intervals in the piece. The stripes in between were woven by 194 people from the community as well as our state's first lady, Alice King, Albuquerque Mayor Louis Saavedra, author Tony Hillerman and then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton.

The finished 18.5 foot long tapestry demonstrated to me the unity and connection of the diverse spirits who caused its creation.

The Thread of New Mexico hangs in the City/County Government Center in downtown Albuquerque.

Lisa Trujillo

Weaver and co-owner of Centinela Traditional Arts in Chimayó, NM

My husband and his father taught me to always make each piece different. To do that I must always develop new ways of carrying designs. Patterns are about making rules so I make rules for one piece, knowing I will break those rules sooner or later. There are unbreakable rules of course, cover the warp, weave a straight edge, but the rest of it is about making and breaking rules. That is where the infinite variation comes from and the excitement I bring to each piece when I discover what happens if . . .

I learned, and still learn, a great deal by studying old pieces. The "code " for creating the designs is laid out in those pieces. The progress of tradition and the creativity of the weaver is always inspirational. I draw from these ideas, but when I weave it is the process that spurs me on. The slow pace that is required from a complicated tapestry gives me time to always be responding to what is in front of me on the loom. If it is slow enough it is like spending days, or even months, in meditation. I am in love with the process of weaving Rio Grande. Not just with the interaction of warp and weft, but of edges and angles, "positive " and "negative " space, color, rhythm, pattern and progress. I see my weavings less as work than as a by-product of this magical process.

Louisa Gelenter

Owner and chief dyer of La Lana Wools in Taos, NM

'How I came to natural dyes and stayed there'

It all began for me while traveling around Bolivia in the early 70s. Every indigenous woman we saw, whether she was selling potatoes in the marketplace, nursing her baby or scurrying up and down the precipitous Andean trails, was also constantly spinning or respinning alpaca on a spindle.

It looked magical and struck some ancient past-life chord in me. So I bought a spindle and some alpaca and sat down with some ladies in the La Paz market. They spoke only Quechua and Aymara so no verbal explanations were possible. I tried to mimic their motions, practiced, persevered and returned home with a goodly amount of handspun yarn.

Now to dye it. After all the effort that had gone into making the yarn it seemed to deserve something more than a teaspoon or so of some powdered coal tar dye. (I had always admired the rich tones and soft glow of old Navajo, Turkish and Persian textiles and how all the colors were in harmony.) So I began experimenting with the plants in the driveway. Carefully documenting every attempt--dozens of yellows, weird greens and blah beiges with only a few "keepers " among them: Kota (Navajo tea), Mullein, Snakeweed, Indian Paint Brush and, of course, the humble onion skin. After a while the dye path led to the exotic dyes of antiquity and Madder, Brazilwood, Logwood, Indigo and Cochineal. Unlike chemical dyes with their near-perfect reproducibility, each plant dye lot is unique and has many after-baths and surprises. If I continue doing this for the rest of my life, I know I will never come to the end of it.

Well, the steps make the path. What began on an Incan trail has turned into La Lana Wools in Taos where we sell our yarns, fine wearables, rugs and pillows and the Taos Valley Wool Mill which enables me to card my wool and mohair and turn it into luminous yarns, fibers and Forever Random blends, much loved by knitters.

Rachel Brown

Weaver, teacher and founder of Weaving Southwest in Taos, NM

My first artistic media were painting and drawing, but it wasn't until I was over 30 that I was introduced to weaving and spinning. Immediately I became obsessed. The magical twisting of glossy fibers, dyeing them and then intertwining them with the warp definitely became the medium of choice for me. Luckily, I was impoverished at the time, so spinning and dyeing my own yarns was a necessity. Since then, I have become spoiled and cannot weave unless I have an extensive palette of colors with which to work; and so I continue to dye all my yarns, even though I do not always spin them. I never took the approach of making a painting first, translating it to a cartoon, and then executing it in the medium of weaving. Instead, I have always considered weaving as an art form in itself and let the restrictions and laws of the medium influence the design. Most often, I just start weaving.

Brown tapestry

Rachel Brown
Wool tapestry

But indeed, this type of tapestry weaving is a relentless and unforgiving medium. As you "build " the fabric, if you weave a shape or color you regret, you have to compensate for it somewhere later. Sometimes it stretches your imagination to its limit, but you come up with solutions that you would have never dreamed of on paper. In this way, I am constantly challenged as I weave. I like to think that the process of creating a tapestry is similar to the life process. You can have a plan, but expect the unexpected, and always be open to change. In weaving a tapestry, as in life, you can never go back.

The inspiration for certain forms and colors comes from somewhere down deep in my subconscious and reminds me of the tones and rhythms of primitive music. My fascination with repeats, variations and progressions comes from my love of Baroque music. And always tugging at my heart are the old Navajo and Rio Grande weavings that inspired me in the beginning.

Teresa Archuleta-Sagel


Sagel colcha detail


Colcha embroidery detail

I learned to do the colcha embroidery stitch from Señora Elosia Maestas when I was a teenager. Mrs Maestas was like a member of the family--a grandmother figure, a respected elder with wisdom and patience enough to sit and guide a young girl. Later, after I had already been weaving for many years, I returned to colcha, the first tributary that led me to Rio Grande weaving.

When we say the word colcha today, we know it to mean an embroidery stitch, or a finished piece of embroidery in which the colcha stitch was extensively, if not exclusively, employed. In Spanish, colcha means coverlet or counterpane; however, today Nuevo Mexicanos tyarticleally call any bed covering a colcha. The New Mexican colcha stitch is of unknown origin. We cannot say how it arrived here, but we do know the stitch employed is similar to several embroidery stitches used around the world.

Roland Dickey describes the stitch as "a long, coarse stitch in wool yarn, caught in the middle by a short, horizontal (or diagonal) stitch. The needle is pushed through from the underside of the fabric, passed across the top of the design, and pulled though, leaving a long straight line. Then the needle is brought to the middle of the stitch and passed over it at right angles in a short 'step-over' to hold the long stitch flat. Sometimes more than one 'step-over' is used to fasten very long stitches. "

Colcha has the reputation of being an easily mastered stitch that grows rapidly. It is true that colcha is a very relaxing stitch to do; it adapts well to various design motifs, and the stitch does seem to flow and increase at a fast rate. However, when one is working on a large blank piece of sabanilla, the foundation cloth traditionally used for colcha embroidery, one must invest an inordinate amount of time before being rewarded with a totally covered tapestry. Very few Spanish Colonial colcha embroideries were made. The majority of these lovely textiles were produced in northern New Mexico. However, contrary to previous belief, the settlers of El Valle de San Luis in southern Colorado were also familiar with the colcha tradition.

We have many theories as to how colcha embroidery evolved in New Mexico. Whatever its origins, New Mexican colcha embroidery work is unique because of how it was produced. The colonists utilized the material that was most abundant to them--long, lustrous handspun churro wool. In Spain, the embroidery work employed linen and silk, but the residents of New Spain created elegant, if somewhat coarser, textiles by weaving lengths of sabanilla which they then totally covered with the versatile colcha stitch. Indeed, the softness and quality of the churro fleece in an intrinsic part of the unique beauty of the Rio Grande colcha work that survives today. I think noted scholar Marianne Stoller's description of colcha embroidery says it best: "Colcha means softness, warmth, a gentle gaiety, richness and intimacy. "

James Koehler

Artist / Weaver

I began weaving in 1977 while living at a Benedictine monastery in northern New Mexico and spent the next ten years working in the monastery weaving shop. I was given many opportunities at that time—learning to weave and dye, learning about the creative process, learning about solitude, learning how to focus my energy. There was no lack of inspiration living in the beauty and austerity of a New Mexican wilderness. Whatever it was that drew me to the rhythms of monastic life, also drew me to the rhythms of the loom and to the rhythms of life as an artist/weaver. I now spend 10-12 hours at the loom or in the dye studio each working day. The process of passing the shuttle through the warp and filling design areas with color has a meditative, hypnotic quality for me.

Koehler tapestry

James Koehler
Wool tapestry detail

Color, structure and form are the focus of my approach to design. In working out the details of a design, I have chosen to work within the technical limitations of flat tapestry. I continue to be influenced by the extraordinary landscape and the unique cultures of New Mexico and by certain aspects of the monastic aesthetic—simplicity, purity, seeking and portraying only what is essential.

Tapestry focuses on process—the creative, constructive process. My woven images reflect the relationship of this process with the rhythmic, repetitive yet unpredictable process inherent in the natural world. At first glance, my tapestries are a regular, ordered composition of geometric forms, but on a deeper level the discerning viewer discovers a vital movement of color which brings the forms to life.

Further Reading About Textiles

Fisher, Nora. Rio Grande Textiles. With a new introduction by Teresa Archuleta-Sagel. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1994. (The original edition, Spanish Textile Traditions of New Mexico and Colorado, 1979, is now out of print.)

James, H.L. Rugs and Posts: the Story of Navajo Weaving and Indian Trading. Schiffer Publishing, 1988.

Kahlenberg, Mary Hunt. Walk in Beauty, The Navajo and Their Blankets. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1992.

Kapoun, Robert and Charles J. Lohrmann. Language of the Robe--American Indian Trade Blankets. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1992.

Mather, Christine. Native America: Arts, Traditions, and Celebrations. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1990.

McIntyre, Kellen Kee. Rio Grande Blankets: Late Nineteenth-Century Textiles in Transition . Albuquerque: Adobe Gallery, 1992.

Thanks to the artists for their thoughts and photographs.

Originally appeared in
The Wingspread Collector’s Calendar - Volume 3, Number 4

Related Pages

700AD-1989: A Chronology of Fiber Art in NM article
Collecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings article
Indian Trade Blankets article
Side Trip: Tierra Wools article

Textiles as Art article
Vallero Star Blankets article
Batik As Art article
The Pomegranate in New Spain article

Collector’s Resources


Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054
Wright's Indian Art | 505-266-0120

Santa Fe

Joan Caballero Appraisals PO Box 822, Santa Fe, NM | 505-982-8148
James Koehler rem By appointment in Santa Fe | 466-3924
Laura Center Navajo Rug Restoration PO Box 8455 | 505-982-5663
LewAllen Galleries | 505-988-3250
Marigold Arts | 505-982-4142
Museum of International Folk Art | 505-476-1145
Tansey Contemporary rem 652 Canyon Road | 505-995-8513
Seppanen & Daughters Fine Textiles, Inc | 505.424.7470


Millicent Rogers Museum | 575-758-2462


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