When the native tribes of New Mexico became fed up with the abuses of foreign oppressors in 1680 they revolted and kicked them out. But, they kept the sheep.
The 29th annual Wool Festival at Taos celebrates the profound impact these seemingly lowly animals had on the history of the Southwest. The Mountain and Valley Wool Association (MVWA) will host the event Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 6-7), 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., in Kit Carson Park, 211 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Admission is free.
The history of sheep and the importance it held for the cultures of the region is deep.
In the early 1500s, the Spanish government decreed that Merino sheep were too valuable in European markets to export to the “New World.” As a result the more common and hardier varieties, the Churra, the Castellana, Manchega, and Lacha were sent along with the colonizing expeditions.
It didn’t take long before the term “churro” came to refer to all the common breeds of sheep.
Some 5,000 sheep trailed Spanish conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado through New Mexico in 1540 on his search for the Seven Cities of Gold. Don Juan de Oñate brought another 3,000 with him in 1598 when he established the first Spanish colony north of what is now Española. Then, the churro became the vital keystone of much of the settlement economy. Large ranches grew throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. Flocks numbered in the tens of thousands. Immense numbers were driven back into Mexico each year to supply the silver mining encampments of the Veta Madre, Nueva Vizcaya and even down to the Taxco de Alarcón.
At the same time, the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, indentured to herd the giant flocks, began incorporating the animals into their own economies and traditions. The Navajo and Apache people, forever on the edge of colonial New Mexico likewise saw the use of the European animals and quickly developed rather sizable quantities of churro through both trades and raiding, the Navajo being particularly adepts at nurturing sizable flocks.
The Wool Festival at Taos will feature an impressive regional market of 68 juried vendors taking the wool and fiber arts traditions into the future. They will be selling fibers, yarns, knitted and felted creations and other inspired works.
The Fiber Critters Showcase with live alpaca, llamas, sheep and goats is always a favorite with the kids. Throughout the weekend, there will also be numerous workshops in natural dyeing, knitting, weaving, spinning, felt-making and crocheting. Competitions will encompass hand spinning skills, shearing and finished products. After all that visitors may be hungry so many different sheep-derived foods will also be available, from meat to cheese to milk.
Connie Taylor of the Navajo-Churro Association will join Chris Switzer to judge sheep, goat and alpaca fleeces Saturday at the Fleece Show Tent. All fleeces must have originated in New Mexico, Colorado or Texas to be judge and must represent 12 month’s growth or less. Fleeces will be judged for cleanliness, uniformity and overall fiber quality.
For the first time, winners of the competitions will be announced in public in order to highlight the top producers and artists. The awards ceremony will take place after 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Breeder Myrtle Dow of Eaton, Colo. will display her renowned Teeswater and Wenslydale breeds at Booth No. 9 this year. “These are British breeds we started working with in the 80s,” she says. “They are a big animal and have long, curly locks that are incredibly soft. There are no other breeds like them in the states. The main reason that we keep on today is to improve our breed, but also to improve the standing of sheep overall in the country,” she says.
Murphy Mitchell, El Prado artist and Site and Activities Coordinator for the festival has hosted a booth every year for going on 13 years. “I prefer to do most of my fiber shopping at the festival. It is a visceral thing, you know. First of all, there is tremendous variety but also, local producers, dyers and processors are very high quality and diverse in what they can do.”
“We’re keeping a very important tradition alive,” says Ruth Baldwin, the Chair of the MVWA. “We’re not only celebrating the creativity of the artists and the skill of the growers but we’re also celebrating the animal.”
The churro has had its ups-and-downs so the tough breed may indeed deserve some celebration. It wasn’t so long ago that the churro population in North America had dropped to just 400 animals. It is characterized by its thick coat, ability to resist disease and survive in harsh conditions.
As part of the effort to subjugate the Navajo people, legendary Col. Kit Carson virtually eradicated the churros from the Four Corners landscape in the 1860s.
As the Euro-American culture moved west, fine wools were increasingly sought after on both the East Coast and in Europe. Many churros were bred with long-wool sheep such as the Merino to better suit the need of industry but small pockets of the landrace sheep survived in the Southwest and California.
Despite all of this, by 1930 the Navajo flocks were again huge, estimated at nearly 600,000, while over a million sheep are thought to have been worked throughout northern New Mexico. Then, severe drought conditions and over-grazing forced Federal policies that limited the growth and use of flocks throughout the Southwest.
Although still considered a rare breed, the churro has made a comeback in large part due to the El Prado-based Connie Taylor and the Navajo-Churro Sheep Association.
The MVWA is a membership organization. “We feel it is super important to create new traditions and lineages with fiber production in the area,” Murphy Mitchell says. “The festival is part of that. We’re tough in our standards so that we support each other and support the regional fiber producers. We require a high percentage of regional fiber in our products, for example. We really are a green association.”
Events wrap up with the silent auction on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fabulous fiber products, tools and remarkable finished items will be up for bid. Profits from the auction will ensure that next year’s wool festival will be just as impressive.
For more information, including a listing of workshops, competitions and other events, call (800) 684-0340 or visit www.taoswoolfestival.org/.