For this second installment of Swatch of the Month, Jess has really outdone herself! This is a rich and meaty post, and I hope you’ll spend some time with it today or over the weekend. And please have a lovely one! Here’s Jess—
When you visit Oaxaca, one of the first things you notice are the textiles. Hanging from doorways, draped across clay walls and clotheslines, piled up on tables, spread at your feet. The landscape is a rolling expanse of tans, sage and stormy blue mountains, but the buildings, the clothing and the woven rugs are a riot of color – fuchsia, peach, indigo, marigold. Zapotec weavings are ubiquitous in Oaxaca and particularly in the small village of Teotitlán del Valle, where I stayed for a few days for a one-on-one weaving residency.
As I’ve talked about on Fringe before, I visited Oaxaca in 2014 for a wedding but extended my stay to study under Federico Chavez Sosa, a third-generation master weaver who taught me to weave rugs in the traditional Zapotec style. On my final day in Teotitlán, I knew I had to take home a few skeins of the rainbow of Navajo-Churro wool yarn that hung along the walls of his workshop. I wasn’t an active weaver then and am still not now (hope that a bigger space that accommodates a floor loom could change that someday), so it never occurred to me that not all yarn could or should be used interchangeably for both weaving and knitting. Caught up in the colors, the excitement of the week and probably a healthy dose of FOMO, I picked out a few skeins in the hopes of knitting a sweater or two, and brought them home where they’ve sat in my stash ever since.
The thing about Navajo-Churro wool is that it’s coarse and probably not something you’d want to wear next to your skin (although I’m sure Churro diehards would disagree). The Navajo-Churro sheep are descendents of the Churra, an ancient Iberian breed known for their hardiness and adaptability. They’re part of the so-called “primitive” breeds – meaning those that haven’t been bred to specific characteristics and can trace their lineage back to early Bronze Age sheep – along with perhaps better-known breeds like Icelandic, Jacob and Shetland. Their long, double-coated wool has a coarse, almost hair-like, outer layer while the inner, shorter coat is fine and soft. But it’s just these qualities that make the wool so well-suited for weavings, rugs, blankets and outerwear, which is what it’s been primarily used for since the sheep were brought over by the Spanish in 1494, becoming the first domesticated sheep in the Americas.
From the the time they were introduced, the Churra were relied on for food and fiber along the upper Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost tip of Texas where it meets with Mexico. With colonial expansion, flocks grew into the thousands in North America. Pueblo and Navajo acquired sheep through trade and raids, and the Navajo in particular took to shepherding, growing their flocks exponentially and using the Churra wool to produce textiles that became the basis for their economy. Over time, the name of the sheep changed from “Churra” to “Navajo-Churro,” although the sheep are also referred to as both “Churros” or “Navajo sheep.”
In the late 1800s, the U.S. government sought to further control the Navajo tribe by controlling their flocks. The U.S. Army slaughtered tens of thousands of Churro sheep in 1863 and federal agencies led crossbreeding programs with finewool sheep, like Merino, to provide softer fiber to the garment industry. These crossbred sheep were not well suited to the climate, however, and suffered. Drought and government-imposed stock reduction programs in the 1930s further decimated the breed. Small pockets of “old type” Churros survived in isolated villages, but by the 1970s had reached near-extinction, their numbers dwindling to just 500 sheep.
To protect the breed from further depletion, a Utah State University animal science professor named Lyle McNeal founded the Navajo Sheep Project in 1977. About ten years later, the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association (N-CSA) was founded. To date, there are over 6,000 sheep registered with the N-CSA in the U.S. alone, and breeders can be found across the Southwest and beyond. Preservation efforts from dedicated ranchers are helping ensure their continued rebound, as well as allowing Navajo to continue their traditions of handspinning and weaving with Churro wool.
Further south in Oaxaca, native weavers were using cotton and the backstrap tension loom to produce textiles for clothing and trade as early as 500 B.C.E. When the Spanish arrived, they recognized Teotitlán’s potential as a weaving center, and instead of dismantling the culture there as they did for so many other communities, they forced native laborers to weave for Spanish colonies. They introduced Churra wool and the fixed-frame pedal loom to the Americas, allowing weavers to produce weavings – primarily blankets – on a faster and larger scale than ever before. As in North America, Merino sheep were introduced to try to “improve” the Churro breed, but by the mid-1600s the Churro wool blanket industry was already well underway. (Note: It’s here that my research goes cold on the Churro breed in Mexico – if anyone knows more about the history of the Churro in Mexico and in Oaxaca specifically, please share in the comments!)
By the 1970s, weavers in Teotitlán had begun creating large rugs on even larger looms – some ten or twelve feet. In 1974, the introduction by American importers of the July issue of Arizona Highways, dedicated to contemporary Navajo rugs, sparked a flurry of imitative weaving by Teotitecos. Today, weaving production in Teotitlán is focused primarily on an export market rather than selling solely to Mexican nationals or tourists. Color schemes, designs and quality of the rugs created by both Zapotec and Navajo weavers alike are now driven, for better or worse, by the American market. In Teotitlán, a small village in one of the poorest states in all of Mexico, entire families have found economic success in selling their rugs internationally, with many importers in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. The rugs and weavings of today, as they were centuries ago, are still created with Churro wool.
The few Churro skeins I have were carded, spun and dyed by Federico and his family in Teotitlán, and still have little flecks of grass and hay caught in the fibers. Not all weavers in Oaxaca can afford to use natural dyes in the yarns and weavings, but many still do, relying on dyestuffs from the nearby landscape – lichen, bougainvillea blossoms, pomegranate skins, indigo leaves, and even shells of caracol, or sea snails. The skein I used for my swatch is a single-ply fingering weight, dyed with cochineal, an insect that feeds on the nopal cactus and whose larvae is crushed to produce a range of vibrant reds, pinks and purples.
Given the coarseness, I knew that I didn’t want to use this yarn for a sweater, so I considered creating a fabric that could be used as functional for the home. Imagine a set of placemats or the front of a pillowcase, with the front knitted up and black linen sewn on for the back, *swoon*! To approximate the look and feel of a weaving and to stand up to continued use, I wanted the gauge to be tight and thick. I also knew that I wanted to use a simple, geometric pattern that drew inspiration from Zapotec and Navajo designs and allowed the yarn to sing. After sketching several motifs and looking through some stitch patterns, I landed on the woven transverse herringbone pattern in Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns. Knit up, the design was exactly what I was envisioning.
To be honest though, knitting with Churro wool was tough. This was likely exacerbated by the slip-stitch pattern and tight gauge, as I held the yarn double and knit on size 6 needles to get the thickness I wanted. It really gave my hands a workout! However, the swatch softened up a lot after blocking, and I could easily envision this fabric used in outerwear, like a poncho. I’m totally in love with the stitch pattern too, and it would make a great scarf or cowl.
Despite the challenges, I’d highly recommend working with Churro wool to expand your horizons and try something uniquely different than what you might be used to. Churro wool production is supported by weavers and textile artists who are working with this special fiber. Need more ideas beyond knitting or weaving? When I was at TNNA a few weeks ago, I brought this skein with me and passed it around, asking others how they might use it. The best answer I received was from Jill Draper, who recommended felting it. The coarseness would make it felt it up like a dream. Knit it up quickly in a loose gauge, then felt the heck out of it in your washing machine to create a fabric you could use for all sorts of things.
Here are some resources for buying Churro yarn, but I’m sure there are others – please chime in with suggestions!
Yarn: Handspun Navajo-Churro wool dyed in cochineal, held double
Needles: US6/4mm Addi Turbo needles
Gauge: 22 stitches / 34 rows = 4 inches, in woven transverse herringbone pattern (below)
M E T H O D: For the woven transverse herringbone stitch pattern, please see Barbara Walker’s A Treasury of Knitting Patterns.
If you’re interested in learning more about Navajo and Zapotec textiles, there are a good number of resources out there. Five I’d recommend are:
- Textiles from Mexico by Chloe Sayer (haven’t read this one personally, but it’s considered a classic in the field)
PREVIOUSLY in Swatch of the Month: June ’16 / Mesh rib linen