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The Bazán Brothers Weavers

By William Wroth

“Rio Grande” is the name given to Hispanic blanket weaving in nineteenth-century New Mexico. It is a craft tradition which has deep roots in Mexico and in the Southwest. Prior to the Spanish Conquest, weaving had long been practiced by Native Americans in New Mexico and Arizona, where in particular the ancestral Pueblo Indians wove garments from locally-grown cotton and other plant fibers. Thanks to the dry climate of the Southwest, fragments of prehistoric textiles showing complexity of technique and subtlety of pattern have survived. Weaving by the Indians of the Southwest and Mexico was traditionally part of household production usually done by women on simple backstrap and frame looms, producing, in conjunction with a myriad of other domestic activities, small quantities of clothing for family and ceremonial use.

With the Conquest, the Spaniards brought domesticated sheep to Mexico, and they introduced European industrial weaving methods, including the horizontal treadle loom. The treadle loom was, for the day, a very efficient machine designed for high-volume commercial weaving. With this loom and other simple machines used in wool preparation, such as the spinning wheel, weaving was transformed in Mexico and New Mexico from an intimate household art practiced by woman to an industry in which men laboring in workshops (obrajes) turned out bolts of cloth to make into clothing, as well as blankets and sarapes (a wearing blanket or poncho).

Today Southwest Indian and Hispanic weaving of the colonial period and nineteenth century is often thought of as a unique regional expression, but the craft in New Mexico was, in style and technique, an integral part of the larger picture of textile production in central and northern Mexico. By the 1630s wool weaving workshops, similar to those in central Mexico, were in operation in Santa Fe and other New Mexico locations. Large quantities of coarse yardage, blankets, and other items were turned out on these looms, and much of it was shipped south for trade in the population centers of Mexico. At the same time, under supervision of the Franciscan friars, the Pueblo Indians began weaving with wool on their vertical frame looms, producing considerable numbers of blankets, as well as making other items of clothing such as woolen stockings. Much of their production was collected as enforced tribute by the Spanish authorities. These local products were supplemented by clothing and textiles brought north by the triennial mission supply train from Mexico and later by the efforts of private traders.

In the eighteenth century with the re-establishment of the colony after the Reconquest in 1696, the Pueblo Indians had more freedom to trade their woven products which they continued to produce in quantities on their vertical frame looms, and the Navajo Indians also became active weavers, producing wool blankets and garments of high quality. Among the growing Hispanic population sheep-raising was a major occupation, especially in the Rio Abajo region area of New Mexico. Here large haciendas had their own textile workshops producing yardage and blankets as part of the income-producing activities of the hacienda.

While in both Mexico and New Mexico, Spanish methods and purposes seemed to dominate this craft, in at least one important area indigenous influence was still strong. This was the creation of the sarape, a ubiquitous article of male attire which retains pre-Columbian elements in its design and use. The brightly-colored sarape designs, usually with central diamond motifs, have no direct antecedents in Spain, and in the late colonial period and nineteenth century they were an essential part of the costume of men, especially those of the rural vaquero and ranchero classes. In the eighteenth century the Mexican weaving industry was largely concentrated in central Mexico. It did not develop quickly in the north, except in New Mexico where weaving flourished, especially in the Rio Abajo area of New Mexico, due to its isolation from the rest of Mexico and its abundant sheep herds. The 1790 census lists nearly 90 weavers in Albuquerque and nearby communities, as well as many more textile workers such as carders and spinners. Santa Fe in contrast had only two weavers and one carder listed in the 1790 census.

While eighteenth-century Hispanic weaving in the Rio Abajo area was commercially oriented, in the northern New Mexico, with mountainous land less suited for large-scale sheep-raising, there were many small land holders, and textile production was more often a family activity. Women were responsible for the wool preparation and often did the weaving. The treadle loom was used for weaving, but wool was still spun by women on the Indian drop spindle (malacate). The spinning wheel was seldom used until the late nineteenth century.

Most New Mexican weaving was coarser than that made in central Mexico and no longer did well as an export product in the late 1700s, particularly as the Mexican weaving industry was expanding. Governor Fernando Chacón took note of this situation as early as 1795 when he wrote to the comandante in Chihuahua that even the Navajo Indians “work their wool with more delicacy and taste than the Spaniards” in New Mexico. In a report to the viceroy in 1803 Chacón noted the poor state of the crafts, particularly weaving, in New Mexico: there were no apprenticeship programs, no examinations for master craftsmen, or organized guilds in the colony. To remedy this situation, in the same year the viceroy determined to send master weavers to New Mexico from Mexico.

In 1805 a contract was signed with two brothers of español status from the city of Puebla who were weaving guild members: Ignacio Ricardo Bazán, certified master of weavers, and Juan Bazán, tradesman (artesano) of the same guild. They agreed to a six-year stint in Santa Fe in order to teach the art of weaving to apprentices. In addition, they were given the necessary equipment to equip the looms in Santa Fe, these implements to be carried north on three pack mules. Ignacio Ricardo Bazán, a widower, brought his two sons, Francisco Xavier, age fourteen and José Manuel, age ten, along with him. Ignacio Ricardo was to be paid eighteen reales per diem during his time in Santa Fe, and Juan twelve reales per diem. In Santa Fe they were to be provided with a house and supplies at a just price. Upon completion of the contract they were to leave “approved pupils in the class of expert tradesmen.”

The Bazán brothers arrived in Santa Fe in 1807, set up their workshop and began training apprentices. Just two years later in April 1809, Ignacio Bazán wrote to Acting Governor José Manrrique asking that his students be tested in their skills as weavers. Manrrique asked the two alcaldes of Santa Fe, Antonio Ortiz and José Campo Redondo to witness the test, and then he sent the samples woven by the students to the comandante in Chihuahua, Nemesio Salcedo. The Bazáns were released from the remainder of their contract, since the apprentices had learned all that they could teach them. However, after completing his contract, Ignacio Bazán did not return to Mexico. He decided to stay in New Mexico because in 1807 he had married his second wife, Juana Apolonia Gutiérrez, from the village of Pajarito, south of Albuquerque.

It is likely that the Bazáns stimulated not only wool but also cotton weaving, which is not surprising since Puebla, where they were from, was noted for its fine cotton textiles. In 1812 Pedro Bautista Pino in his report to the Spanish Cortes stated that the Bazáns introduced looms for fine cotton weaving to New Mexico. Most likely Ignacio Bazán after his marriage moved to the Rio Abajo area where cotton was productively grown and where a variety of cotton textiles, including blankets, were woven in the early 1800s. Ignacio and his wife had at least two children. Their son Joaquín Alejandro Bazán was born in 1807 and lived in Belén, south of Albuquerque. He married María Luz Ortiz; their child Higinia was baptized in Belén in 1844. Joaquín Alejandro died in 1871 and was buried at Los Pueblitos, near Belén. It is likely that he followed his father’s profession as a weaver. He may be responsible for an unusual group of Rio Grande blankets from the Rio Abajo area, which incorporate cotton as well as wool wefts in striking color combinations and designs. The 1822 Albuquerque census lists 71 looms for the weaving of cotton as well as wool, but the local cotton-weaving industry began to die out by the 1830s, due to the large quantities of inexpensive cotton textiles and garments brought from the eastern United States to New Mexico over the Santa Fe Trail.

The major impact of the Bazán brothers, and possibly also their descendants, was upon the weaving of Rio Grande blankets and sarapes. In addition to the Rio Abajo cotton blankets mentioned above, several other innovative types of blankets were produced in New Mexico in the early 1800s. New design elements were introduced, such as the now ubiquitous central diamond motif. Although popularly associated with the Saltillo sarape, in fact this motif was found on sarapes and blankets all over Mexico, and at some point in the early 1800s it was introduced to New Mexico, possibly by the Bazáns. Given the lack of weavers found in Santa Fe in the 1790 census, it is likely that the most important effect of the arrival of the Bazán brothers was to stimulate weaving in the north. In virtually every northern village from Taos to Santa Fe blanket weaving became an important craft in the nineteenth century, and New Mexican weavings, by the early 1840s, had regained their status as an export item. More than 20,000 Rio Grande blankets, sarapes, and jergas were shipped to markets in Mexico in the year 1840.

The American occupation in 1846 and the coming of the railroad in the 1870s brought a gradual decline of the New Mexican weaving industry, but textiles continued to be made in more isolated villages for local use. In the 1880s in response to the increasing tourist trade, Santa Fe curio dealers such as Jake Gold and J. S. Candelario began to offer Rio Grande blankets, as well as Navajo and Pueblo weavings. The town of Chimayó soon became the center of this more commercialized Hispanic blanket weaving. In the 1930s a vibrant revival of more traditional Rio Grande blanket weaving began, utilizing natural dyes and handspun yarns. Both Chimayó and revival blanket weaving continue to thrive in the present day.

Sources Used:

Bloom, Lansing B. “Early Weaving in New Mexico,” New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 2, no. 3, July 1927.

Chávez, Fray Angélico. Origins of New Mexico Families. Santa Fe: Historical Society of New Mexico, 1954.

Fisher, Nora, ed. Spanish Textile Tradition of New Mexico and Colorado. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1979 (reprinted with title of Rio Grande Textiles, 1994).

Lucero, Helen and Suzanne Baizerman. Chimayó Weaving. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Wroth, William. “Sarape Textiles from Historic Mexico,” The Mexican Sarape: A History. St. Louis: St. Louis Art Museum, 1999.