2019 Master’s Award for Lifetime Achievement Rita Padilla-Haufmann, the fibers of a carefully woven life By Daniel Gibson
Every textile created by weaver Rita Padilla-Haufmann is a living tribute to her Spanish colonial ancestors and the rich and resourceful lifestyle that sustained New Mexicans for centuries in this once isolated realm.
The tejedora (weaver) of Tesuque, a true student of her art, notes, “In my studies I discovered that there was once a group of seven women from Rio de Tesuque [the original name of the village just north of Santa Fe] who were identified in an 1832 census as mediera — wool stocking knitters. These included my own ancestors. It was almost unheard of for a woman to be identified on census records as having a profession. Other documents I found showed that trade goods from Nuevo Mejico moving south to Mexico, included stockings, most likely from these very women. In honor of this history, I include a small stocking on every textile I weave. It’s my mark of tribute and respect.”
Padilla-Haufmann’s work — created by exactingly cleaning raw churro wool, spinning it, coloring it with natural dyes and then using it to weave — has garnered many awards and is found in many major institutions. In recognition of her attention to historical detail and the high quality and beauty of her weavings, she has been declared the Master Artist for the 2019 Traditional Spanish Market and will be a featured figure at this year’s gathering on the Santa Fe Plaza.
The distinction was a long time coming, as Padilla-Haufmann first spent 26 years serving as an English teacher at Santa Fe High School. She retired about 20 years ago, and only then did she have the time to pursue her dream and ambition to deeply delve into the field. “It started very late for me. But I was always a knitter,
quilter, stitcher and involved in fiber in some way. I would always go to Spanish Market and look at the textiles. There were people in the late 1960s and early ’70s — like Teresa Archuleta Sagel, Juanita Jaramillo and Maria Wilson — who were working with natural dyes, and I would admire their work and speak with them.”
In her early studies, she came across a document written by H.P. Mera and produced by the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, which included early 19th-century Hispanic weavings in what is now called the Rio Grande style. “They are incredible textiles, beautiful works. Many are found in museums, and this style became my inspirational direction.”
A master of all steps
Once set on her calling and style, Padilla-Haufmann methodically began to master the process from start to finish. “I studied, I read, and I observed. I asked questions from those who were already working in the field. I learned slowly through trial and error.”
She begins with buying raw churro wool, which comes in basic white, brown, black or gray. It must be carefully washed to remove soil and lanolin (natural grease), then rinsed several times and slowly dried. It is then carded to align the fibers and then hand-spun with a foot-powered wheel to produce skeins of 4 ounces or so. These are again washed, rinsed with a mixture including a bit of poleo (pennyroyal oil) to discourage moths and dried under tension to set the twist in the yarn.
While many weavers today use commercially spun and dyed wool, she set out to do it all by hand. It took her a full year to learn how to spin. “I got a small wheel and every day after school I would spin for an hour. It was too thin; then too thick, lumpy, ugly. But eventually I could produce a consistently thin yarn.” But this was working on a small wheel; a larger one would produce more desirable longer lengths of yarn. She acquired one developed by Rachel Brown of Taos, which she uses today, but had to relearn the process, as the larger wheel is somewhat different from the one she had mastered.
“All along I was doing experiments with natural dyes, reading what texts I could find on the topic and trying out various methods of dyeing.” After many years she has perfected this process and today produces works in a rainbow of colors. She is currently experimenting with “overdyeing” wools in secondary colors, producing subtle variations in tone and shade.
She first treats the yarn with a mordant in a simmering bath of alum and cream of tartar to prepare the fiber to accept the dye. The dyes themselves she prepares by gathering or buying natural materials (such as cota for producing oranges and yellows), madder root (for corals), logwood (for purples), cochineal (a dried bug for reds and magentas), Brazilwood (for deep roses), snakeweed (for yellows) and indigo (for blues).
She simmers her yarns in these dyes for a full day in a solar box that her handyman husband built for her. She measures the temperatures of the liquid (often hovering around 170 degrees) while dyeing. “My colors are very alive, very bright, very vibrant,” she notes. She believes it is her slow simmer, versus a boil, that imparts such rich color. The dyed yarn is next soaked in her washing machine with Dawn dishwashing liquid, then rinsed several times and finally hung to dry.
Finally, the weaving
“The last process is the weaving, which most people think is where I begin, but it is actually just a small part of the process.” It begins with setting up the long, vertical warp strings on her custom maple loom, which the weft yarn fibers will be woven through. This step alone can take days. She prefers to work on a 42- to 45-inch warp, as that is her comfortable arm reach, but sometimes goes as wide as 54 inches. “Width is also determined by how much dyed wool you have.” Over the years she has come up with a calculation to determine how big a piece can be based on the weight of the wool. A 3-by-5-foot work, for example, will require about 1,000 grams of yarn.
She determines proportions of length and width using an ancient formula, the golden mean, which early artists found was particularly pleasing to the eye. Width times 1.618 provides the ideal length.
Her actual designs are of the Rio Grande style weavings that evolved in New Mexico in the late 1800s. “All my designs are based on tradition. I don’t copy them, but they inspire me.” The style is defined by bands of color woven with shuttlework techniques in which yarn colors are alternated to produce varying patterns. She typically works with five bands but sometimes three or seven.
“What you are tying to do is create something that looks three- dimensional while working in only two planes. How do you do that? By using a diagonal element. You create a design within the design. I want movement in the work, so it’s not static, and elements of contrast and harmony.” She likes to use variations of a single color, say purple, within a single work, offset by other colors. She places sample colors next to each other, arranging them in various patterns and juxtapositions until she finds combinations that she likes. Thus no two weavings are ever the same, even those using the same design patterns and elements.
Records and awards
Padilla-Haufmann has kept a written record of every textile she’s ever produced — 574 works and counting — with detailed notes on design, color, dimensions, start and finish dates, amount of wool used, name of buyer, cost and other facts. Small sketches of patterns are included, as well as sample yarns of varying colors and photos of the work in progress and finished. These notebooks are a treasure and will be an incredible resource for future weavers and art historians.
She also lectures about her work and demonstrates spinning and dying in schools, museums and her home studio. Her work has won numerous awards and is found in the collections of the Denver Art Museum, the Taylor Museum of Colorado Springs, the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, among others.
Living in the same home in Tesuque in which she grew up, she says that driving her overall dedication to her craft is her love of Spanish colonial arts. She also notes the influence of her grandmother, who made colchones — mattresses. “According to my mother, my grandfather was somehow associated with sheep, perhaps as a cook in
borregas [sheep camps]. He’d come home with bags of wool fleece, and my grandmother would clean and card it, then stuff mattresses of fabric she stitched together. She would use them on beds. We still have one she created. They were really warm, very nice in winters. My love of what I do came from being influenced by everything around me. It's part of the history, the culture. I’m working in a tradition. I do it to honor and respect what people in previous generations did and to continue these traditions.”
Rita Padilla-Haufmann will be exhibiting at the 2019 Traditional Spanish Market. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Native New Mexican Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe has served as editor of this publication for four years. He is inspired to continue by getting to know people like Padilla-Haufmann and by learning a bit more about our region’s rich, fascinating history.