(Courtesy of Española Valley Fiber Arts Center)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — In the centuries prior to the Spanish invasion of what is now known as New Mexico, fiber arts and textile production was a robust art form throughout the region’s diverse Indigenous communities. In the aftermath of colonization by both Spanish and American settlers, Española — a large town about 20 miles north of Santa Fe, flanked by Santa Clara Pueblo and Ohkay Owingeh (formerly San Juan Pueblo) and situated on the banks of the Rio Grande — became a well-established socioeconomic center. Today, a cornerstone of the community is a small, refurbished adobe building on the right side of the road as you approach from the south: the Española Valley Fiber Arts Center (EVFAC).

EVFAC was originally organized in 1995 by a small group of Española-area weavers looking to establish a space to continue their families’ traditions. Renting a space in a local church and using donated looms, the group started to teach weaving to interested members of the community. By the end of the following year, the organization moved to their current Española location, and soon, they began selling supplies, teaching classes, organizing exhibitions, and promoting intergenerational knowledge in fiber arts.

EVFAC’s Española location (Courtesy of Española Valley Fiber Arts Center)

For many in northern New Mexico, weaving is a way of life. Pueblo people throughout the Southwest have been creating textiles imbued with cultural narratives for over a thousand years. And according to Navajo legend, the neighboring Diné learned to weave from Spider Woman, who resides near Canyon de Chelly’s Spider Rock in Arizona. Later, Spanish settlers brought churro sheep (now emblematic of Diné weaving), along with their own traditions from Spain to the Rio Grande Valley, and soon, American tourists irreversibly changed the marketplace. Today, the influences of these groups on each other is hard to miss. The fluidity and evolution of textile production is the result of the region’s complex, multi-layered histories of intertribal trade, colonization, and resistance. In addition to these larger narratives, each community of weavers and individual artist brings their own cultural consciousness and aesthetics to the work, resulting in a generative, living tradition of storytelling.

Earlier this month, EVFAC, an Española mainstay for over 20 years, opened a new location in Santa Fe’s trendy Railyard District, signaling a significant shift for the organization.

EVFAC’s Executive Director, Denielle Rose, explains that the Center was established “in a time where fiber arts was in a lull, but now, people […] are starting to pick it back up. They were trying to bring fiber arts back to life as an important aspect of local culture and local history.” In New Mexico, “the history [of fiber arts] can be traced back and moved forward. EVFAC is important because we care about the traditional art forms, and also really celebrate contemporary movements in fiber arts,” Rose told Hyperallergic.

Education, for both established fiber artists and newcomers, is fundamental to EVFAC’s mission. To achieve these ends, the organization’s flagship educational program Walk in and Weave was established so “anyone can craft a unique piece of handmade New Mexico.” This program, designed for any skill level, is popular among tourists and locals alike. EVFAC also offers professional development opportunities alongside facility and equipment rentals, where any member of the community can rent out the EVFAC facility, gaining access to looms, a full dye kitchen, sewing facility, wet-felting machine, and the library.

(Courtesy of Española Valley Fiber Arts Center)

With the Center’s expansion into Santa Fe — newly branded as the New Mexico Fiber Arts Center — some members of the Española community have expressed concern that EVFAC are turning away from their community and toward a more elitist crowd in Santa Fe, the third largest art market in the United States.

“We are not abandoning Española in any way,” responds Rose, “we want to work deeper in this community.” EVFAC’s work with Moving Arts Española on local youth education, and a new project that would bring community members healing from trauma and addiction to the Center, are all significant ways in which EVFAC is tied in the Española Valley community. “Our expansion, to me, is about providing resources that can impact our communities more deeply.”

Currently, the Santa Fe location primarily serves as a retail outpost and as a place to educate Santa Feans and tourists about the Center’s larger goals and mission. “My heart is in making us stronger, more sustainable,” says Rose, who argues that the Santa Fe location is going to better position EVFAC to expand further throughout the state. With 78% of Española public high school students experiencing economic disadvantage, Española is “certainly a community of needs,” explains Rose, “but so is the rest of the state. It may feel more pronounced in Española, but reaching youth in Santa Fe is just as important as reaching youth here.”

It is clear that the Center is looking not only south to Santa Fe, but to the rest of New Mexico: “As we start to dive into other areas of the state, and we see various opportunities or needs, we will be able to provide more services.” Embedded within this physical expansion is Rose’s goal to make EVFAC a space for healing. “For some of us,” Rose, a fiber artist in her own right, explains, “doing fiber arts at the end of the day can be transformative. I’m looking to serve those types of needs and make EVFAC a sanctuary.”

When asked about the future of textile production and fiber arts in New Mexico, Rose names difficulties with wool production. Farmers and ranchers are losing intergenerational knowledge about how to raise sheep that produce useable wool, and mills are rapidly closing, with only a few left in operation. Despite these barriers, fiber artists are improvising, purchasing yarn from other sources, and thriving. The weavers in Nuevomexicano communities, such as Chimayó, are “busier than ever” due to a renewed interest within the community, as well as from tourists and collectors. At the same time, Pueblo and Diné weavers are continuing, expanding upon, and innovating their craft as they always have, working both in and outside of the marketplace.

Rose notes that Anni Albers stopped working in fiber because she realized she could never be recognized as “legitimate artist” if she continued. “What I’m hoping for is that, nationally, fiber arts will become recognized as an art form on a deeper level. Once fiber arts hits the spotlight, it won’t lose it,” says Rose. “This recognition is happening, and there is a true uprising of popularity happening right now and that is exciting.”

Lillia McEnaney is a museum anthropologist and arts writer who lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.