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Handwoven Textiles, Tierra Wools, Inc.
Handwoven Textiles, Jose Isabel Quiroz Garcia
Industrial Technology and Traditiona Knowledge
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 Nena's loom
The following is an interview transcription from the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with participant Maria ELena "Nena" Russom, weaver and teacher at Tierra Wools, Incorporated. Interview by Juanita Garza, presenter and interpreter at the Festival.*
The Rio Grande
Technology of Dyeing Wool for Handwoven Textile Production
JG: This morning Nena would like to talk you about. . .not so much the weaving, but how you get the colors, the dyes. What is the process?

realaudio(Real Audio 75 Kb)
NR: Okay, the one thing we do is the yarn has to be prepared to dye and the yarn has to be to be washed and depending on the type of the wool, the lanolin, the oils in the wool will either repel the dye or help absord the dye. So the wool has to be processed. It is usually washed and scoured and carded and spun. We very rarely dye the yarn before the wool before it’s spun. But if we want to get variegated colors then we can dye the wool before it’s spun and dye it in different colors. Then as we spin it we pick up the different colors to get a variegated color.

Nena at work

Nena Russom begins weaving a tapestry on a horizontal loom at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The loom shown here is smaller version of the one she uses at home, where she stands while she works.

JG: One of the things that I am interested in is how science has helped you in the dyeing process. You probably don’t use as much natural or vegetable color coloration process anymore. How has this impacted your traditional way of doing things?

realaudio(Real Audio 241 Kb)

NR: Well now because of the quantity of yarn that we need to dye, we use commercial dyes. And the common dyes that we get come in a powder form. They come in a big tin cans and we get a basic of about probably about eight colors--your basic reds, blues, greens, yellows, browns and blacks and depending on the color of the wool and how we mix those colors--that’s how we come up with the different colors that we are able to come up with. We also use sulfuric acid as a mordant which is kind of dangerous. We dye our yarn in an open fire--over an open fire in a big metal tub, like that one back there. We pour in -- we use the its full of water, the water boils; we put acid into the water; we put the dye into the water; then we dip the skeins of yarn into the dye and the yarn absorbs all of the colors. So when we pull the yarn out of the bath, all that’s left is clear water and then we’re able to change colors as we go along. So we’re not wasting the sulfuric acid. Depending on the weather--if it’s a warm day or a cold day--it’s real hard for us to get the exact same colors every time. Sometimes the community water has different chemicals in it if they are putting Clorox or chlorine into the water that will affect how the yarn absorbs the different colors. As so it’s real hard for us--you know if you come in and you say we want a rug in this color of green, well you might not get that color of green even if we use that same formula over and over again. For fifteen years, we’ve been trying to make recipes, you know, and name our colors, and it, it just doesn’t work. Because everytime you dye--depending on how much oil in the wool and the shade of the wool--sometimes our white isn’t true white. It’s a little yellow, then we have to soak it in a vat of real light purple to get it back to white and then we can dye and try and get, you know, softer colors that we need.

JG: You have the open fires outside? What do you use for fuel for the fires? Natural gas? Wood?

NR: We use wood. We try and use oak. The water needs to be really hot, and with propane or butane, you cannot get the water that hot. So it can be in the middle of summer and it can be 80 degrees outside and you can be standing over a roaring fire and the water’s boiling and the steam is in your face. So now we use face masks that are proper for this. You are breathing the fumes of the dyes and also the fumes of the sulfuric acid all day. We try to do it with propane [a cleaner fuel] and we just cannot get the water hot enough to boil.

JG: That’s interesting and why is it oak? Does it have more density? What is it?

NR: Oak, lasts longer. It won’t burn up as fast and so that’s what we use.

JG: And is that the type of wood is readily available to you?

NR: All the oak we use is from falling wood. It’s already dry. It takes years to dry by itself. We are not cutting down new trees.

JG: What you are really doing is combining science with traditional ways. You still do things traditionally but science is impacting the things that you do.

realaudio(Real Audio 131 Kb)
NR: Right, with the quantity of wool we cannot do natural dyes. Even when we do do natural dyes, at this point, it’s not like we go out into the woods and collect roots and plants and flowers. What we do is we’ll use stuff like indigo and you cannot get indigo in New Mexico. So you go to the store and you buy the indigo that has already been processed. Use it to dye. The other thing we use is cochinilla. That is something we use traditionally. It’s traditional to use cochinilla. But we don’t have cochinilla in northern New Mexico so by the time we get it, it has already been processed so that it’s a fine line between what’s natural dyeing. This is natural dye stuff, but we didn’t go out and pick it. The other thing with using natural dyes is the mordants are almost more dangerous than the sulfuric acid that we use. So the process takes, you know to dye two or three pounds [of yarn] could take two days. When we dye, we dye a hundred to two hundred pounds in one day. And because of the commercial dyes we are able to do that. . .

* transcription edited for clarity

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