By Dawn-Marie Lopez
Photos by Raul P. Lopez
Each of us takes a different journey on our path to our chosen art and craft. For many crochet enthusiasts, that journey began sitting on their grandmothers’ or mothers’ knees, watching them stitch beautiful doilies, table-runners, afghans, and baby booties. For me, it began when my husband, Raul, and I moved to our home along the Turquoise Trail 12 years ago. Awed by the beauty of the natural surroundings and inspired by the intrepid women who had settled in the East Mountains before me, I wanted to develop a whole new skill set. I set out to learn how to bake a loaf of bread, to can, to use a pressure cooker, to preserve jam, to cultivate a garden, and to sew and crochet. I confided this to my neighbor, and she arranged for her daughter to give me my first crochet lesson. All I needed was an inexpensive aluminum crochet hook and some yarn. I was, pardon the pun, hooked.
The origins of crochet are a bit of a mystery. While the oldest knitted artifact goes back to ancient Egypt, crochet seems to have originated in France starting in the very early 19th century.
In the 1830s, French-trained Irish nuns brought the technique back to their homeland, and soon Irish housewives, impoverished by the potato famine, labored at making what became known as “Irish Lace.” Many of these artisans avoided starvation by paying for their passages to America on the money earned from these crocheted items.
Turns out I’m not the only East Mountain resident passionate about crochet. Brahna L. Wilczynski is fascinated by how crochet links the Old World with the New, and she has amassed a collection of fine vintage crochet pieces that she has framed behind glass. Included as part of her collection are a series of intricate doilies that her mother brought back from a trip to Palestine in the early 1930s. She considers crochet of this quality to be a fine art.
Patsy Campbell, a master crochet artist, volunteers her time at the Village of Tijeras Senior Center by teaching a crocheting class that meets every Thursday morning. On the day Raul and I visited, she showed us one of her creations, a beautiful white skirt and blouse set with faux pearls crocheted into the fabric. It’s a treasured family heirloom, first worn by Campbell’s niece Demetria when she played Malinche, a religious character that figures prominently in the Los Matachines dance-dramas of central New Mexico. Twenty-five years later, in 1998, Demetria’s daughter Savannah wore it when she took on the role in the Fiesta of San Antonio, which takes place every year in Tijeras. This is just one instance in which crochet is part of a tradition that reaches back centuries in the East Mountain communities.
Edgewood resident Robin Pascal is an award-winning crochet artist as well as a weaver and maker of glass buttons. She also spins and dyes her own wools, painting different sections of the hanks with different colors to give the yarn a variegated effect. As the last step in the process, she “cooks” the hand-painted yarn in the microwave.
Many types of yarn can be used in crochet, but the most common is wool, which has a long history in New Mexico. In the guidebook New Mexico Fiber Arts Trails, fiber artist Lisa Trujillo points out that, “. . . wool has been the predominant fiber in our artists’ hands for the last four hundred years . . .”
The process of creating yarn from wool begins when fibers are combed or carded to align them into a soft, untwisted rope called a rove. They’re then spun into a continuous twisted strand to create yarn. A single thread of yarn is called a strand or ply of yarn. This single ply is usually combined with other plies to form the final yarn. Yarn weight or size refers to the diameter of a strand of yarn and can range from very fine to very thick.
Some common wools used in crochet include lamb’s wool, also known as virgin wool, which comes from a young lamb’s first shearing. New Mexicans will be familiar with the wool from the Churro sheep raised by the Navajo, used for over a hundred years to make the tribe’s famous blankets and rugs. Merino wool, from the Spanish Merino sheep, and cashmere, which comes from the neck of a specific breed of goat, are very fine and highly prized. Alpacas are also a popular source. Sometimes wools are blended with other materials to lessen their expense and/or to increase their durability.
In my search for wool for my crochet projects, I discovered that there are many artisans in the East Mountains who run fiber farms and who spin and dye their own yarns. Many of these can be visited during the annual East Mountain Fiber Farm & Studio Tour, which takes place every year in June. These are great places to pick up yarn and supplies for a crochet project and to touch base with people who are passionate advocates of the fiber arts.
One of those places is Hollywick Farms Alpacas, a working alpaca farm established by Bill and Kathy Herman in Sandia Park in 2007. Native to the Andes and once owned exclusively by Incan royalty, alpacas have long been prized for their gentle nature and soft, durable fur. The traditional model for the alpaca business closely resembles that of the Arabian horse industry, in which the animals are breed and raised for the show ring. But the Hermans were more attracted to another growing trend in alpaca-raising, one that focuses on the luxurious products made from alpaca fleece. Visitors to the farm can not only purchase beautiful yarns that Kathy spins and dyes herself but also a number of one-of-a-kind felted, knit, and crocheted items, made by Kathy and other artisans.
Victoria Collins is co-owner of the Wool Shed farm shop at Maple Winds Farm in Stanley, a New Mexico True Certified establishment. She sees fiber farms as a way of putting people back in touch with the beauty and durability of handcrafted items. “We have people come out to the farm that live right here in the East Mountains,” she says. “They’re giving up their plastic for paper, and they’re giving up a lot of ‘stuff’ for original fibers—cotton or wool, or whatever. They’re going back to those, and they’re going back to crocheting or knitting.” The farm raises Rambouillet and Tunis sheep, known for their fine wools. They sell clean and carded fiber in sheets, rounds, or rovings, handspun and hand dyed in a number of beautiful colors. Collins also sells her finished woven and knit items onsite at the Wool Shed.
Another resource for buying yarns, needles, and threads is the Edgewood Yarn and Fiber Store in Edgewood. Owned by Virginia (‘Ginny”) Zvoch, it is truly a fiber paradise. They also offer classes in spinning, weaving, knitting, and needlepoint.
Whether you are a newcomer to the art of crochet or you have been working the hook for many years, you’ll find a wealth of support here in the East Mountains, from supplies to classes to like-minded stitchers. And, who knows, maybe one day one of your pieces will become a beloved family heirloom or a treasured collectible.