As recently as a decade ago, the Churro sheep, the oldest domestic farm animal in North America, faced extinction. Brought over by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, this hardy breed was so suited to the harsh winters, poor grazing, and lack of water of the Southwest that Churros eventually numbered in the millions. The sheep were important to the Native Americans, especially the Navajo, until after the Civil War when the U.S. military destroyed thousands of sheep as a tactic to starve the Navajo and force them onto reservations.
With the decline of the sheep, the vitality of many small communities in northern New Mexico—already under threat from lumber companies, cattle ranchers, and developers—faded as well. In response, a group of ranchers including Molly and Antonio Manzanares formed Ganados del Valle in 1983 to bring back the Churro sheep. Lyle McNeal, Ph.D., of Utah State University contributed several purebred Churro rams, which they bred to local sheep that showed Churro genes, and after several generations they were breeding purebred Churros themselves. This sheep-raising mission has also been adopted by the Navajo Sheep Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring Churros to the Navajo to help revitalize traditional tribal culture.
At the same time, Tierra Wools was created to revive the art of weaving. The business, based in the village of Los Ojos, is owned by weavers who buy certified organic wool from local herders and hand weave it into rugs and tapestries based on designs that have been handed down through the generations.
After the wool is washed with a natural detergent, about 10 percent of it is hand spun and the rest is sent to Taos for spinning. It is dyed in Los Ojos under the supervision of Lupe Valdez, and many of the colors are derived from plants that she collects locally. As apprentices, the weavers learn all aspects of the craft. They start with striped patterns, then move on to the more complicated tapestries.
“There is no end to what one can create,” says weaver Helen Manzanares. Each weaver chooses her colors and creates her own design. The finished product is judged by her fellow artisans, who award points for color, design, and technique. Weavings with the highest points command higher prices at the shop in Los Ojos.
Tierra Wools supports 45 employees and their families in the community, where wages in turn benefit other local enterprises. The Churro sheep have also made a comeback, and the flock—one of the largest in the United States—now numbers 275.
“We weave so we can raise sheep,” says Robin Collier, Tierra Wools executive director. “We weave so that the pasture lands, the acequias (irrigation canals), the village, the church, and the family endure to nurture a way of life that’s important to all of us.”
Last fall, the nonprofit Wool Traditions was launched to produce larger lots of yarn from local wool and sell it at a lower price, both to Tierra Wools and other traditional weavers.