The riot of colors and designs in the historic sarapes and blankets on display at the Center of Southwest Studies dazzles the observer.
But the discerning eye can pick out patterns, styles and nuances that identify the provenance of the textiles and their creators, Jeanne Brako, the center’s curator of collections, said this week.
The 20 pieces on display through Dec. 17 – one of numerous events marking the center’s golden anniversary – are premier examples of Rio Grande textiles, part of the center’s larger 300-piece Durango Collection, Brako said.
The Rio Grande textiles collection totals about 50 pieces.
Rio Grande designates the blankets, sarapes and rugs produced by early Spanish settlers along the river of the same name from just south of Albuquerque northward into what is now the San Luis Valley in southern Colorado.
They derived from the colorful, decorative and expensive textiles brought from the old country to Mexico and labeled Saltillo style for a city in northern Mexico.
The early weavers hewed to their traditional styles, Brako said. But the need for utilitarian textiles, the availability of new materials and exposure to native designs put a distinctive Rio Grande stamp on later products.
Brako pointed out a sarape with a jagged diamond design at the neck opening – a sign of traditional style. A sarape from the Rio Grande period might feature a diamond distinguished by the Navajo right-angle step-terrace design.
Rio Grande textiles weavers continued to incorporate gradations of blue from the indigo plant and red from the cochineal insect – colors developed by earlier textile producers. They also combined blues and plant yellows to produce green.
Natives subjugated by the Spaniards often were held as household slaves, Brako said. Captives who were weavers soon found themselves seated before a vertical loom producing textiles for someone else.
“It was pretty prevalent to have slaves,” Brako said. “Certain tribes raided others and sold slaves to the Spaniards.”
The pieces in the current exhibit date from 1860 to 1920. The core of the exhibit is a gift from Richard and Mary Lyn Ballantine. Also included are pieces from the Durango Collection that were donated by the Ballantines and Mark Winter, who runs the historic Toadlena Trading Post in an unincorporated community off U.S. Highway 491 south of Shiprock, N.M.
Richard Ballantine was publisher of The Durango Herald and sister newspapers until his retirement last year.
Textile designs can be similar but techniques tell the knowledgeable observer whether a textile is Rio Grande or the work of Navajo, Hopi or Zuni weavers, Brako said.
A Navajo piece may have a fringe, but it was sewn on the textile later, Brako said. The fringe on a Rio Grande sarape is an integral part of the construction – the point where the warp was cut.
A sarape made of two pieces joined by a center seam identifies it as Hispanic because indigenous sarapes are single-piece constructions.
Motifs range from repeated bands of different colors to elaborate central designs.
The iconic piece in the exhibit for her, Brako said, is an 1850s sarape with a central jagged-angle diamond with original indigo and cochineal colors.
After Mexico became independent in 1821 and the Santa Fe Trail became a major trade route, Rio Grande textiles found new markets in California.
A sketch and photos reproduced for the exhibit bring the production of textiles and their use to life.
The sketch of an indigenous woman weaving on a vertical loom was done by Richard H. Kern, an artist who rode with expeditions, military and commercial, in Navajo country around the mid-1800s.
An 1890 photo by Harvard-educated Charles Lummis, a writer and photographer who spent four years in Isleta Pueblo south of Albuquerque, shows a living room there in which textiles are seen being used as rugs, wall hangings and bench coverings. In front of the photo, exhibit organizers have constructed a similar setting using Rio Grande textiles.