Friday, July 15, 2011

Navajo Churro Sheep and Wool

flickr by Just chaos

The rare Navajo Churro sheep are of Iberian descent, brought to North American during the 16th century by the Spanish. By the 17th century, these sheep were popular in the Rio Grande Valley and had been acquired by the Native Americans.

Churro sheep are extremely hardy, low-maintenance, and adaptable to climate extremes. Their wool consists of a protective topcoat and a soft undercoat. Because of a rare trait, rams may develop four horns. The sheep are resistant to disease and have lean meat, but are used primarily for their wool.

Next, see this 1904 Edward Curtis photo:

File:Navajo flocks.jpg
Edward S. Curtis "Navajo Flocks" c1904 Plate #33

By 1750, overgrazing of these sheep in the Chuska Mountains of New Mexico destroyed the vegetation, resulting in less frequent fires in the area. In the mid-19th century, the Navajo tended three million head of Churro, which had adapted to the dry scrubby conditions of the Colorado Plateau. The Navajo's lives, by then, were dependent upon these sheep.

Prior to the Civil War, and during the dust bowl, the federal government mandated stock reductions in Navajo lands that nearly put an end to this breed. They numbered less than 500 in the 1970's, when efforts began to restore the breed. Today, they number over six thousand head.

flickr by Just chaos

Churros come in a variety of colors, including reds, browns, black, white, and mixes, and color may change with age.

The above photo is of a Navajo-style loom. The Navajo people use Churro fleece in rugs and other weavings. The long, dense fibers of Churro wool have a very low lanolin content, making it ideal for spinning without washing and easy to dye with natural vegetable pigments.

The wide range of natural colors makes it easy to have a variety of colors without the need for dyeing, although natural vegetable dyes are sometimes used to produce deeper colors and wider selection.

The pinks and reds from vegetable dyes are pictured above. Red dirt mixed with rainwater and prickly pear cactus fruit may be used for red dyes.

This photo shows Churro yarns in the yellow ranges from vegetable dyes. Examples of yellow dye sources are sagebrush, rabbitbush, and onion skins.

Above is a large old treadle style loom, also used for Churro yarn weaving.

These next three photos were taken at the Santa Fe farmers market last Saturday:

A farmer who raises Churro sheep and sells his yarn is shown spinning yarn in his market booth.

Because Churro wool has a very light grease content, it is possible to spin this wool in-the-grease. Its long fibers and relatively little crimp make it a popular material for hand-spinning and weaving.

This booth is run by Antonio and Molly Manzanares from Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico. They own Shepherd's Lamb, a family ranching operation 100 miles north of Santa Fe at an elevation of 8,000 feet. They have a nice website rich with photos and a history of their ranch, if you are inclined to learn more about raising sheep in this unique geographical region. You can order lamb and yarn from them, too.

The exotic Churro sheep, their story, and the people who have raised them is perhaps one of the more romantic tales of the settling of the Wild Southwest. I'm glad to say that the story continues to this day, as does the hardiness and adaptation of both this species and its people.