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Alpacas, artisans flourish side by side in New Mexico

By Meg Pier
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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SANTA FE — Deep in a wide valley encircled by snow-capped mountains, I stood surrounded by dozens of creatures with soft brown eyes. A few nudged me gently, while others spat noisily on the ground.

The 1,100-acre Victory Ranch, home to 300 alpacas, is one stop on New Mexico’s recently blazed rural Fiber Arts Trails. Envisioned in 2005 at a gathering of the state’s cultural tourism advocates, the circuit features more than 200 artisans at 71 destinations.

From downtown Santa Fe, I had driven east to Las Vegas, a small railroad town, then veered north on a country road that took me into the southern Rockies. Arriving at the spectacular expanse that is Victory Ranch, I felt as though I had reached Patagonia, an illusion enhanced by the grazing herd of alpacas.

Alpacas, members of the camel family and native to the Andes, do well in the 7,000-foot-plus elevation of northern New Mexico with their enlarged hearts and lungs.

“Their fiber can be finer than cashmere,’’ said Darcy Weisner, ranch manager. “It’s very lightweight as it is a hollow hair, which gives it unique insulating qualities. We analyze every alpaca’s fiber every year when we shear. This helps us with our breeding program as well as with deciding whose fiber should be sent to a mill and whose will be handspun or sold as raw fiber in our store.’’

At the Mora Valley Spinning Mill, a mile down the road, director Carla Gomez walked me through the process of transforming hefty bags of tangled fur into skeins of vibrantly-colored, silky wool. A staff of eight operates the machines that produce about 50 pounds of wool a day. Gomez hopes to double that by year’s end.

Early Spanish settlers introduced sheep to this region in the late 16th century. Gomez sees the mill as both an economic engine and preserver of “heritage’’ breeds.

“For a small farmer, the animals that are raised are a part of the family,’’ she said. “When an animal is raised for its wool, fiber is a harvested crop, just like picking a peach that is ripe and sweet off a tree.’’

Leaving the mill, I drove through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then along the Kit Carson National Forest to the tiny town of Youngsville, about 100 miles west of Mora. Here, from its perch at 6,800 feet, the property of fiber artist Katy Blanchard has a stunning 360-degree view: Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe painted for 50 years, is to the northeast; the artist’s beloved Cerro Pedernal mountain to the east; lovely mesas to the west; and the Santa Fe National Forest to the south.

In 1983, when Blanchard was trying to create a shade she refers to as Navajo red, she discovered what she called “the wonderful world of natural colors.’’ She now has about one-eighth of an acre devoted to natural dyes, growing plants for herself and for sale to other fiber artists.

“I finally achieved the red I wanted using cochineal, which is a bug that grows on cactus,’’ said Blanchard, the director of New Mexico Fiber Artisans, a statewide coalition of artists, growers, businesses, and groups committed to developing fiber and fiber art as a primary income source.

Next I headed to Española, a sprawling suburb of Santa Fe. At the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center’s adobe storefront, merchandise included pictorial and abstract tapestries, rag rugs, jerga blankets, shawls, felted scarves, willow baskets, colcha embroidery, quilts, and handmade paper.

Diane Bowman, the director, said the goods are made by the membership. The center was founded in 1995 by a small group of weavers who knew area families had inherited looms but had little knowledge of the heritage and techniques of northern New Mexico textiles practiced by their grandparents. With donated looms and space in a local church, they began to teach weaving. Today, the nonprofit organization has a staff of five.

“Weaving offers a way to earn income for the elderly, women with young children, the many people who are underemployed here or live in isolated areas where work is not available,’’ Bowman said. “Artists need markets for their work beyond once-a-year studio tours.’’

On aother day, I visited Centinela Traditional Arts in Chimayó, about 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. This is the studio of Irvin and Lisa Trujillo, weavers whose work is in the Smithsonian. I had admired several of Irvin’s pieces featured at the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, as part of its exhibit of New Mexico artists designated as “masters’’ by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Irvin is a seventh-generation weaver. He has worked with a range of historical blanket styles: Río Grande from the Spanish Colonial period; Saltillo from the Mexican period; Vallero from the American Colonial period; and Chimayó from the Industrial Revolution period. In time, Irvin became known for both his mastery of traditional styles and his spirit of innovation.

“Weaving is my life and my pieces reflect my observations and experience of my culture and surroundings,’’ he said.

Touring the Fiber Arts Trails, I experienced the rich tapestry of the area’s textile heritage from “sheep to shawl,’’ discovering artistry and cottage industry hard at work.

Meg Pier can be reached at megpier@viewfromthepier.com.

If You Go

What to do
The New Mexico Fiber Arts Trails cover almost 1,800 square miles, encompassing more than 200 artisans at 71 destinations. A guide is available at www.nmfiberarts.org, or from New Mexico Arts at 505-827-6490. The brochure contains three distinct “loops,’’ each offering magnificent scenery and fascinating fiber arts venues. Among them are:
Centinela Traditional Arts
Route 76, Chimayó
www.chimayoweavers.com
505-351-2180
A tapestry gallery specializing in handwoven wool products using natural dyes and traditional Chimayó/Río Grande weaving styles.
Española Valley Fiber Arts Center
325 Paseo de Oñate, Española
505-747-3577
www.evfac.org
The site includes a gallery, yarns, equipment, books, and handmade textiles.
Urban Eagle Herb Co.
Highway 96, Youngsville
575-638-0306
www.urbaneagle.com
Katy Blanchard’s dye garden can be visited by appointment in July and August.
Victory Ranch
Route 434, Mora
575-387-2254
www.victoryranch.com
Sells alpacas as well as products including alpaca roving, yarns, garments, and blankets; other yarns; and fiber arts supplies. Daily tours 11 a.m., and 1 and 3 p.m., adults $3, children $2.
Tapetes de Lana & Mora Valley Spinning Mill
Highway 518, Junction 434
Mora
575-387-2247
www.tapetesdelana.com
Mill tours, yarns, and handwoven textiles available.
Where to stay
Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort & Spa
1297 Bishop’s Lodge Road Santa Fe
505-983-6377, 800-419-0492
www.bishopslodge.com
A secluded retreat at the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo range, with 15 separate lodges, with 111 guest rooms. Activities include horseback riding, skeet shooting, mountain biking, hiking, and a world-class spa; from $179.
La Fonda
100 East San Francisco St.
800-523-5002
www.lafondasantafe.com
The most historic of Santa Fe’s hotels, on the plaza downtown with a restaurant, La Plazuela. Rooms $175-$430.
Where to eat
Coyote Cafe
132 West Water St.
505-983-1615
www.coyotecafe.com
Innovative Southwestern cuisine; appetizers $14-$20, entrees $28-$56.
Restaurant Martin
526 Galisteo St.
505-820-0919
www.restaurantmartinsantafe.com
Progressive American cuisine; appetizers $8-$17, entrees $19-$30.
San Francisco Street Bar & Grill
50 East San Francisco St.
505-982-2044
www.sanfranbargrill.com
Long a Santa Fe favorite, moderately priced New Mexican, American, and international cuisine; dinner entrees $7.95-$14.95.