Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The fabrics of New Mexico’s lives

One of the joys of volunteering at El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living History Museum is hearing visitors wax nostalgic about memories evoked by buildings and settings from their or their families past.  (El Rancho has structures dating from the early 1700s into the late 1800s – many of whose real world likenesses were still in use in the 20th and even 21st centuries.
Recently in Sierra Village (c. 1890) Jim had the pleasure of talking to a woman whose grandfather lived on a doppelgänger of this family compound-farm in Southern New Mexico where he was a successful commercial cotton grower.  Among other things, she wistfully and proudly remembered how buyers would come from the east specifically to bid for his bales of the white, fluffy crop.
Since moving to Santa Fe we have become aware that the Navajo, now weavers of woolen objects, practiced their craft with cotton prior to the arrival of the Spanish, and their churro sheep, in the 16th century.   

We also heard at the Botanical Garden that a type of this fiber-producing shrub (along with quinoa, amaranth and other grains) grew wild at the high elevations of New Mexico, and that the natives harvested and learned to grow and use these plants for their clothing or dietary needs.
But we did not know much of anything about the story of New Mexican cotton either before or after the Navajo switched from that material to wool for their weaving.
“The most precious commodities of southwestern prehistory were turquoise, macaws, copper bells, seashells and cotton and the textiles woven from it.”  (Grasshopper Pueblo: A Story of Archaeology and Ancient Life By Jefferson Reid, Stephanie Whittlesey
Fortunately for historians, New Mexico is one of  “four known areas in the world where perishable textile material, preserved by excessively dry conditions, has survived in appreciable amounts to the present day.” The others are Inner Mongolia, Egypt, coastal Peru. (Kate Peck Kent, “The Cultivation and Weaving of Cotton in the Prehistoric Southwestern United States)   
While most evidence comes from the years between 1000 and 1400 A.D., the artifacts indicate that there was loom weaving with cotton in New Mexico as early as 700 A.D.  Among the relics recovered were corpses wrapped in cotton blankets sometimes with tools for spinning (the process of making thread out of raw fibers), cotton yarn, cottonseeds, seed beaters (instruments used to remove seeds), loom parts, weaving tools, and cloth bags.  The quality of work showed the “same skill in spinning thread and the same proficiency in weaving that appear in fabrics of later periods.”
Peck Kent concludes that the cotton plant was not indigenous – more likely a pre-Spanish import from northern Mexico believed to be what is now called Gossypium Hopi – a fast blooming (84-100 days) species that grows at high altitudes in arid conditions.
Similar finds occurred in Arizona and Utah.   Walter J. Fewkes wrote in 1909, “Fabrics made of cotton are common in the ruins of the Red-rocks, and at times this fiber was combined with yucca.”  Francisco Vázquez de Coronado mentions seeing natives of the region raising cotton and Pueblo Indians wearing cotton blankets and giving his 1539 expedition presents of cotton cloth. 
And writing in the Santa Fe New Mexican, historian Marc Simmons reported,  “Hernán Gallegos, accompanying a small expedition to New Mexico in 1581, wrote that the Pueblo Indians ‘have much cotton, which they spun, wove, and made into blankets for covering and clothing themselves.’”  For example two cotton blankets were sewn together to form the basic Pueblo woman’s dress.  The other frequently used material for clothing was finely tanned buckskin called gamuza.  This was quite a pleasant surprise to the Catholic but Puritanical Spanish who, in Mexico, had been exposed to Indians who were “scantily dressed, if at all.”
 “In addition to using native-grown cotton, early Pueblo weavers worked with apocynum (Indian hemp), yucca leaf fiber, fur, and feather cord,” according to the Michael Smith Gallery website.  “Tools found in many of the prehistoric sites indicate that cotton was spun with the same type of stick-and-whorl spindle still in use today. The resulting yarn was fashioned by finger processed into socks, bags, nets, and braids or was woven into cloth on a wide upright loom or a horizontal backstrap loom in which one of two beams holding the warp yarn is attached to a strap that passes across the weaver's back. Weaving on the loom was a man’s art and continued to be so until recently. Anasazi [ancient Pueblo] weavers knew a limited range of natural dyes, including brick red, brown, black, yellow, and pale blue.”
The Navajo learned about cultivation of cotton as well as weaving on the loom from the Pueblo Indians with whom they had a sometimes fractious, sometimes affable relationship.  They also learned the Pueblo technique of gathering cotton by pulling the bolls from the plant and drying them in the sun.  The dry seeds were then “ginned” either by placing the bolls on clean sand, or between blankets, and beating them.
Cotton was known in Europe by the 1400s, but was not commonly used until the 18th century.  But Columbus may have first discovered the textile’s practacality as explained in this footnote from Charles C. Mann’s book, “1491.”
“Given the choice between their own scratchy wool and the indian’s smooth cotton, the conquistadors threw away their clothes and donned native clothing.  Later this preference was mirrored in Europe.  When cotton became readily available in the eighteenth century; it grabbed so much of the textile market that French woolmakers persuaded the government to ban the new fiber.  The law failed to stem the cotton tide.  As the historian Fernand Braudel noted, some woolmakers then thought outside the box;  They proposed sending prostitutes in cotton clothing to wander Paris streets, where police would publicly strip them naked.  In theory, bourgeois women would then avoid cotton for fear of being mistaken for prostitutes and forcibly disrobed.  This novel form of protectionism was never put into place.”
Cotton was however used in Spain for some clothing in the 1540s as evidenced by the 250 Gambeson/Esquipil quilted cotton jackets and 4 quilted cotton head armors that Coronado had listed in the muster inventory for his expedition.
And the “Clothing Guide at El Rancho de las Golondrinas Living History Museum” list the major historically accurate materials as “leather, wool, and cotton”: “the daily costume of New Mexican women was a looses cotton chemise…a long scarf, made of silk or cotton…[and for men] cotton or leather breeches…collarless white cotton or linen shirt…cotton stockings.”
            Cotton City (2010 population 388) is a census-designated place in Hidalgo County, New Mexico, named for its cotton gin, which serves the area's cotton farms.
 In 1807 the Spanish tried to establish a cotton weaving industry among colonists but cheaper cotton goods from the U.S. brought in on the Santa Fe Trail in ended that idea in 1812. 
Then in the early 20th century – during New Mexico’s last years as a U.S. Territory and first years of statehood – the cotton-producing industry of the United States began expanding beyond the “Old South Cotton Belt” of Virginia to East Texas.  They established new production centers in western Oklahoma, the Southern Plains of Texas, and created large irrigated farms in California, Arizona, and in the Rio Grande and Pecos river valleys of southern New Mexico. 
 New Mexico’s agricultural experiment stations and land-grant college (now New Mexico State University) contributed significantly to this expansion by developing a variety of Acala cotton suited to these western growing conditions. 
The long, winding river valleys tended to be more moderate, with precipitation between ten and twenty inches a year, but sometimes had shorter growing seasons due to the elevation.  Summer temperatures were high and the crop-growing season was generally long, but in these arid lands farmers had to irrigate.  Fortunately, most of the rainfall came between April and June, the best time to give cotton seedlings a good start before the hot summer months ensued. 
 In New Mexico the largest areas of irrigated farming occured in the Pecos Valley, from Roswell, New Mexico, to near Fort Stockton, Texas, and in the Rio Grande Valley, largely on the lands of the Rio Grande Reclamation Project, in the Mesilla and Rincon valleys.   The completion of the Elephant Butte Dam in 1916 established control over the Rio Grande, eliminated periodic floods, and made agriculture a more stable and profitable venture.  Cotton fields occupied only 0.4 percent of the total crop acreage in 1919. In 1927 it had expanded to 59 percent. 
“By World War II the cotton-producing areas of New Mexico had become fairly stabilized. Of the approximate 133,000 acres of cotton in the state, about 54,000 acres were in the Pecos Valley and fifty-nine thousand were in the Rio Grande Valley. Although New Mexico cotton acreage expanded to over 200,000 acres in the 1950s, even with the additional acreage in the Pecos and El Paso/Rio Grande valleys in Texas, the production of the New Mexico/Far West Texas region was relatively small compared to the rest of the Cotton West. The region has proven to be far more influential for its development of the Acala 1517 cotton variety,” according to Cameron Lee Saffell of Iowa State University.  The 2007 cotton crop was valued at over $38 million with over 98,000 bales produced.  (Texas (25%), California, Arizona, Mississippi and Missouri are the leading producers.)
Among these farmers was the grandfather of Jim’s Sierra Village visitor.
Cotton has been part of the fabric of New Mexico’s lives since almost the beginning of those lives.  It is a pleasure to be part of a living museum that helps keep those memories alive for those that experienced them, as well as for those who are learning about them for the first time here at las Golondrinas.

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