A Conversation with Robert Ortega of Ortega’s Weaving Shop
Winding up the scenic Turquoise Trail (High Road to Taos Scenic Byway) through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains about 25 miles north of Santa Fe, the rustic village of Chimayó lies nestled in the hills. Located near Santa Cruz, New Mexico, Chimayó has many neighborhoods (placitas), including the Potrero plaza of Chimayó which is famous for its National Landmark Catholic chapel, the Santuario de Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas, or as it is commonly known, El Santuario de Chimayó. Famed as a healing site and nicknamed “The Lourdes of America,” this church draws 300,000 visitors a year from all parts of the world to its pit of soil known as el pocito. Rubbing ones’ hands in el pocito’s dark earth is said to bring good health and wellness. The name Chimayó is derived from the Tewa, “Tsi Mayoh.” Well before the Spaniards and Catholics arrived in New Mexico, the Pueblo and Tewa peoples believed that Chimayó was a healing site.
Within this enchanting village is another compelling tradition every bit as connected to Northern New Mexico heritage, that of Rio Grande weaving. Characterized by turquoise, red, grey, black, and white woven striped, star, and diamond-shaped designs, Rio Grande is a style of weaving that emerged from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. The Rio Grande loom was first brought to North America from Spain in the 1500s. Woven in the small villages that settled along the Rio Grande, Rio Grande-style weaving incorporated Spanish and Moorish roots brought into the region by early Spanish settlers. Some think its star design may have stemmed from American quilts of the time or been influenced by Moorish architectural features. What is known is these weavers were greatly influenced by the Mexican Saltillo and Navajo weavers and developed their own style from both traditions. Saltillo weaving had borders on four sides, with a central motif. Rio Grande Vallero style developed during the American Colonial period, with the Chimayó style coming into prominence during the Industrial Revolution. In a term coined in 1910 by Southwest author and curator of archaeology at Santa Fe’s Laboratory of Anthropology, H.P. Mera (1875-1951), the “Rio Grande blanket” referred to all Hispanic weaving and its tradition in New Mexico because the Spanish had colonized land along the Rio Grande from Rio Abajo in Central New Mexico to Rio Arriba in Northern New Mexico.
In the late 1800s Spanish settlers raised sheep and wove fabric. In addition to providing Rio Grande communities with warmth during cold mountain nights in New Mexico, their woven blankets were also valued for trade. By 1840, thousands of weavings were traded out of New Mexico. The weaving industry flourished, employing sheepherders, spinners, and weavers. The Rio Grande weft-faced, striped blanket that was longer than wide, became the woven product demanded most by traders.
Today’s Rio Grande weaving is a combination of all these historical elements; classical, traditional, and modern. Additionally, the weavers’ connection to the natural land plays a role. Rio Grande weavers are often inspired by their daily lives in their designs. No one knows this tradition better than Rio Grande weaver Robert Ortega.
Since the mid-1700s when Gabriel de Ortega first began weaving in the Chimayó region, the Ortegas have made weaving their family business. Robert’s parents and grandparents lived in the shop, and Robert grew up there. His brother, Chris, is also a weaver but currently lives in Colorado. Today, eight generations later, weaver/owner Robert Ortega and his brothers Andrew and Allen, are the longest-standing family of weavers to carry on the legacy of Rio Grande style.
In the 1920s, Robert’s grandfather started contracting with weavers from outside of the family. Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Robert continues to contract with regional weavers who work mostly from home. These weavers are also all from Hispanic families in the region that have also passed their weaving down through the generations.
Entering the long adobe building of Ortega’s Weaving Shop that houses Robert Ortega’s looms, six-foot wooden looms can be seen standing in the back room. Weavers busy at their craft stand balanced on loom pedals 40” above the ground in a working area. As they push down on each of the wooden pedals, one at a time, wooden frames lift to create a space in between the threads. Shuttles filled with yarn are thrown with a swoosh through the open threads. These lift every time a weaver repeats another step. This movement sets the framework for the more intricate designs that are carefully crafted into the weavings by hand. This is the same process that has been used in Rio Grande weaving in Northern New Mexico since Spanish Colonial times.
“Our looms are hand-built in Chimayó with the same design as those early looms,” Robert explains. “Our weavers stand on what we call “standing walking looms.” Their weight on the treadles (pedals) opens a shed (space in the threads) for a shuttle filled with wool to be passed through it. They shift their weight on the two treadles, which is why it’s called a walking loom. If the loom is especially wide, we add two more treadles. For our weavings, a high-tension warp is wrapped in a continuous roll around a back warp beam. That beam can hold 550 feet of warp and yield 80 -100 good-sized weavings at once. I set up all the warps on our looms to prepare them for weaving. Weavers then work six to eight hours a day to produce the weaving that will become rugs, blankets, table runners, pillows, purses, coasters, placemats, beautiful one-of-a-kind coats, vests, and more.
Smiling enthusiastically, he adds, “Every weaving is unplanned and random. It is all creative work. We just grab our yarn and three to four background colors and get creative. What we come up with is dependent on our mood that day. We weave stripes or sometimes get carried away and do a more complicated design. Designs are traditional but random, with a dominant background color, striped border, and diamond shapes in the middle. The colors are traditionally consistent with five signature colors: turquoise, red, grey, black, and white. But we use all colors, too. This contrasts with Native American weaving, which uses multiple colors.
“We use a blend of sheep wool that is designed to be both soft and durable. Since there is not enough water to supply the wool capacity we need for our commercial production weaving, we use the same woolen mill in Wisconsin that my grandfather used in the 1930s. Since 1915, the mill has spun and dyed the top-quality wool we use in our handwoven weavings.
“Some weavers are production weavers. They stay with a traditional Chimayó style and are repetitive in that style. Others sheepishly show me when they’ve done something creative with their weaving. I can tell right away when they are being creative, and it is beautiful. Each Chimayó weaving is uniquely made in a traditional style but not a standard design. Trying to copy a weaving is frustrating and very nearly impossible. Every design I do and every weaving our weavers create is unique to that weaving and how we felt the day we were creating it. I work from three threads in an uneven weave. Some weavers weave in four even threads. The process is individual to each weaver.”
Aside from highly expensive museum-quality antique Navajo weavings and more modern studio artists’ work, the weavings people can buy in Northern New Mexico are not made in New Mexico but comes from Mexico and India. In contrast, Ortega’s Weaving Shop offers affordable, uniquely authentic weavings that are handcrafted in Northern New Mexico.
Adds Robert, “Northern New Mexico College teaches the heritage arts of our region, with Continuing Education classes offered in Rio Grande Style Weaving at the Northern New Mexico College Española campus. Since we contract weaving to local weavers who specialize in the Rio Grande style, we have hired a few weavers from this program. Creating handwoven 100% original weavings of this kind of lasting beauty is an art that requires deep commitment, though. A lot of people are interested in learning Rio Grande-style weaving, but it takes tremendous patience to continue weaving. The fact is, 90% of people who start to weave give it up after a year or less – so, if you’re thinking of buying a loom and weaving, make sure that you’re really interested in it.”
When asked what long-range future he sees for Rio Grande weaving and Ortega’s Weaving Shop, Robert says, “This heritage is very deep. We are just trying to keep the local, handmade Rio Grande tradition going. Three out of my four nieces and nephews live in the surrounding area and know how to weave. While they are involved right now in the computer industry, a few have begun to grumble about the stresses of working in corporate America. They will likely come back to Chimayó weaving.”
During Covid, Ortega’s Weaving Shop was closed for eight weeks. Now it is partially open, 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM Wednesday through Saturday at 53 Plaza Del Cerro, Chimayó, New Mexico. Visitors can see weavers at work on the looms and buy handwoven weavings at the Shop. Next door at Galería Ortega, a showroom features Indian jewelry and pottery from nearby pueblos, alongside handwoven wool Ortega blankets, coats, rugs, vests, purses, and cushions, all crafted in the “tradition of Gabriel Ortega.” Visitors are encouraged to take the time to browse through the Shop and Galería, where in addition to Ortega weavings, you can find woodcarvings art, music, pottery, Kachinas, books, cards, T-shirts, New Mexican chile, native food products, and even a enjoy a cup of coffee with a “bizcochito,” the light, delicious, sugary-sweet New Mexico state cookie. For information about the Shop and Galería, Robert Ortega can be reached at 505-351-4215 during business hours or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Formerly a resident of Santa Fe and writer/editor for publications in New Mexico, article writer Catherine Lenox is the Owner and Founder of Write Contact, www.writecontact.com. She has a lasting love for the culture and people of New Mexico.