Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Like generations of weavers before them, Eugene and Rose Vigil work as a family unit.
The Chimayó couple, over 30 years, has shared in the creation of hand-made, traditional textiles.
“That’s how the families used to work, so it’s like a family affair,” Eugene said at the Vigil home off N.M. 76, which doubles as a studio and weaving shop. “It’s just Rose and myself, but we work as a team.”
“Both of us can either pull this way or pull that way,” he continued, “and between the both of us, we get things done to a finished product.”
This year will be the award-winning artists’ 25th year participating in Santa Fe’s Traditional Spanish Market.
The annual weekend celebrating Spanish Colonial artistic techniques and traditions attracts more than 200 vendors from across New Mexico and Southern Colorado to the Santa Fe Plaza. The 68th annual market will be held next weekend, July 27-28.
The Vigils are also among the artists offering studio tours during Spanish Market’s ¡Viva La Cultura! week leading up to the big weekend, at their Los Vigiles Living Traditions Fiber Studio and Supply on Monday, Thursday and Friday.
The shop, where they make and sell their Chimayó and Rio Grande-style weavings, has been operating since 1995, the same year as Eugene and Rose took part in their first market. The two have been married since 1987.
Eugene and Rose described Spanish Market as something that has become a big “family” for them over the years.
“We’ve known some adult artists since they were actually born,” Eugene said.
But this year will be different for the couple.
Eugene and Rose, while a team in many aspects, have always both brought separate textile creations to the market. For the first time, Rose will not have her own booth.
Medical issues, as well as the death of her mother in December, have caused her to step back this year. But she’ll still be attending with her husband, whom she’s been helping as he prepares for the weekend.
“This year, I just don’t have the energy,” she said. “To conserve my energy, I’m going to go support him.”
“I’m still weaving,” she went on to say. “It’s just I’m not weaving to get ready for market, which can be quite grueling,”
Together, the Vigils dye all of their wool yarn, warp and prepare the looms, prepare bobbins and “butterflies” – the small pieces of yarn used for design work – and other pre-weaving tasks. She inspects all of the weaving tools and looms he makes in the studio, and the two will often offer each other critiques on their creations.
“Everything I made has some type of help, input, from Rose, so it’s still the both of us in a sense,” he says. “Not the finished, finished product, but everything else is.”
For market, the Vigils say they try to bring a variety of items to offer a range of price points. Eugene will have tapestries, wall hangings, floor rugs, pillows and vests, as well as smaller items like mats and coasters. And all of it, Rose explained, was made using their traditional and largely natural artistic processes.
“Everything is hand-done,” she said while the couple stood outdoors dying churro yarn with layers of cota, or Navajo tea plants, gathered from the side of a road in Abiquiu. “We’re working everything … there’s no machinery besides the loom in here.”
The couple submerged pounds of yarn into a pot filled with the plants and alum salt, a natural compound that helps color set. After the yarn is dyed, Eugene and Rose hang it to cool before washing it in buckets of cold water to clean and further set the hues.
With this year’s good rainy season and winter snowpack, the color extracted from this round of Navajo tea was a vibrant, burnt orange rather than the yellows they’re used to seeing.
“This year, she (Mother Nature) has me smiling,” Rose said.
The couple hand-colors all of their yarn, using about half natural and half analin – or synthetic – dyes.
Eugene said they use analin particularly on orders that must match specific color schemes in a customer’s house. Most of the natural materials the Vigils use, they say, are found near their home or elsewhere in the region. Plants like snakebroom, mistletoe, black walnuts and chamiso are all collected.
Other traditional materials like cochineal bugs and indigo are imported from Mexico. Sometimes they also receive the materials as gifts. Recently, one of Rose’s students gifted them some indigo she found on a trip to Israel, something that Rose treasures as coming from the land where Jesus walked.
Yarn from local sheep
The yarn used in their textiles, Rose said, is made of churro wool from a herd of sheep managed by her cousins in the Española Valley. When they collect the wool once a year, about 30 pounds of the intake is hand-spun by the Vigils. The rest is taken to a mill to be spun into yarn.
The Vigils described their design style as a hybrid of old Hispanic weaving styles: Chimayó and Rio Grande. Rio Grande, Eugene said, originated from the Satillo people of Mexico. Rose described Chimayó as a local offshoot of the earlier style.
The symmetrical and geometric patterns often associated with the Southwest and Mexico, Rose said, originated in the Middle East before the Moorish styles became popular in Spain. And when the Spanish began to colonize the New World, the weaving styles came and evolved even more.
The Rio Grande and Chimayó genres have similarities, Eugene pointed out, like a weft-face style in which only the colorful, weft yarn is visible in the finished textile, not the white warp yarn from the loom. Similar patterns, such as long stripes, can also be seen in either style.
But a major difference is the slope, or runs, in the patterns. Rio Grande patterns are more incremental and take more time to complete, while Chimayós, Eugene said, have sharper and steeper geometric designs.
Rose described the Rio Grande tradition as the originator of the hand-spun churro wool and the natural dye materials, while Chimayó brought in the use of milled-spun, analin-dyed yarn.
“We pretty much use all of the different techniques, whatever we’ve learned from our ancestors,” Rose said.
Eugene pointed out the Rio Grande designs – gradual, multicolored increments, hourglass patterns and diamond shapes – on one of the tapestries he plans to bring to Spanish Market. The large hanging made with black walnut, indigo and Navajo tea-dyed yarns is a recreation of a wedding blanket Rose made nearly 20 years ago. In the original, Rose said, the number of hourglass designs represented the ages of the husband and wife. It also had two colors meeting in the middle, which represented the unity of the couple.
“Tapestry is mainly the oldest form of storytelling, and we’re trying to tell stories as we’re doing the tapestry pieces,” she said. “And maybe it’s just the stories of the weaver themselves.”
In another one that Eugene plans to bring to Spanish Market, he illustrated the local landscape and agricultural history using a series of staircase-like designs. He calls the piece “Terraces,” though Rose recommended that he title it “River Runs Through.”
In the center, he’s made an indigo staircase pattern to represent water. The surrounding earth-tone designs represent the land.
“All along any riverbed, people plant on the sides, and here in Chimayó, you have our property here and a little further up it’s a terrace,” said Eugene. “That’s how the Native Americans used to plant.”
Besides the handmade elements of their work, something else the Vigils said sets their textiles apart is the simplicity and subtlety of their design work. While the couple does set aside time to work on intricate projects, Eugene said they try not to make their work too busy with complex patterns and runs. Rose said this helps make their pieces marketable to a wide audience.
“Nowadays, everyone is such a rush for … pretty much everything,” Eugene added. “So something that will be a little more soothing, maybe.”
It was Eugene’s and his family’s history that introduced Rose to traditional art forms. Eugene is a seventh-generation weaver on his mother’s side, part of a family that has been in Chimayó for centuries – his mother’s house is only two doors down from their home/textile shop. Rose is a native of Hernandez outside Española. The two met as students at Northern New Mexico College when Eugene became Rose’s math tutor.
Eugene learned the craft starting at around 12, originally from his aunt Cordelia Martinez, and then later as a student at the McCurdy Schools in Española.
And as a knitter and crocheter, Rose became interested after meeting Eugene’s relatives, among them Martinez and cousin Dimas Vigil, a master weaver. Dimas later went on to teach Eugene the art of large Chimayó blanket weavings through a state-run apprenticeship program in the early ’90s.
“I went like, ‘I’m in love with this art,’ ” Rose remembered about being introduced to weaving culture, “and I started working for Rachel Brown up in Taos.” Rose worked for and taught under the famous weaver and author for more than 25 years. One of the first looms that she and Eugene put in their Living Traditions studio and store was built by Brown.
As Rose put it, their roles have switched. While weaving has always been a full-time job for her and a part-time one for Eugene – he retired in 2017 after 30 years as a UPS driver – Rose is now weaving on a part-time basis, while he’s made the art his full-time focus. She also teaches weaving across the region, for example at Ghost Ranch, local senior centers and schools.
The two don’t have children of their own, but they said they have mentored several neighborhood kids over the years, one of whom went on to receive a full college scholarship for art and design.
But Chimayó and Rio Grande weaving is an art form that’s dying, Eugene said. Though his family tree is full of weavers, he recently determined he’s the only one left carrying on the craft.
He and Rose hope that will change. They’ve recently spoken with younger family members who want to visit the shop and learn more about the craft of their ancestors.
The Vigils welcome that interest. They don’t want the tradition to end with them.
“It’s just like language,” Eugene said. “If they don’t learn it and use it, it’s going to get lost.”