Although today "Rio Grande" encompasses the entire weaving tradition of Hispanic New Mexico, we use it to describe a weft-faced, striped, blanket, longer than it is wide, sometimes incorporating elements drawn from the Saltillo style within its stripes.
This style is really the root of the tradition. It was probably woven by the Spanish from their earliest years here in New Mexico, which was 400 years ago. Over the years it grew in importance as a trade item, with Rio Grande blankets becoming an important export item for the Spanish colony, and later for the Mexican region and still later when New Mexico was an American territory. By the time New Mexico became a state in 1912, the blanket had diminished as a trade item because of industrialized textile production in the East, and the availability of industrial product brought by trains. During that era, this style becomes less predominant, and Chimayo blankets become the main product of the weavers in the area.
We can group Rio Grande style blankets in several different sub-types.
There are a group of blankets we call "Fresada del Campo", which, roughly translated, are camp blankets. We'd describe them as being simple blankets, with the background color being predominant. They don't use a lot of dyed colors, but mostly use undyed, naturally-colored wools. The stripes are very simple ones.
Wedding blankets are another variation with very simple stripes. And they are the only Rio Grande fresadas that have any symbolism, at least that we are aware of. These are traditional gifts given to a newly married couple. So the two outer sets of stripes are about the bride and groom's families of origin and the center strips are about the newly formed family
Probably the most common form for Rio Grande blankets is this one, with five, seven, or nine stripes. Only these stripes are often complex, and one stripe can be hard to delineate from another. Most of these fresadas were woven on four harness looms, using what is known as a doubleweave. These doubleweave fresadas have a distinctive ridge down the center. The center of the weaving is actually at the edge of the warp on the loom.
The next sub-group of Rio Grande fresadas that we'll identify here is the moki. Mokis are banded a bit differently than other Rio Grandes. They have very repetitive two-color banding, that is interrupted by a third color. The banding colors that are traditional for Mokis are indigo-dyed blue and an undyed brown, interrupted by white. These were the colors most available in the early years of the tradition. So the banding shown in the image above of the doubleweave's center ridge is what a moki traditionally looks like. The one below shows the traditional banding, but includes some Saltillo-type design elements.
We know that the purely striped fresadas were much more common than weavings that incorporated tapestry within the stripes. These blankets were woven for local use and also for export. We have records showing that tens of thousands of blankets at a time left New Mexico on trade routes. Our area was at the end of the Camino Real which originates in Mexico, south of Mexico City. The Santa Fe Trail connected New Mexico to the US after Mexico gained independence from Spain and originated in Missouri. The Old Spanish Trail connected the remote Mexican settlements of Northern New Mexico with Los Angeles with huge mule trains that carried huge numbers of blankets in the mid-nineteenth century.
The last group of Rio Grandes here are the ones with tapestry elements. Although there are fewer of these left to us, they are undeniably appealing to us modern weavers. The tapestry elements are most likely originally derived from Saltillo elements and are said to have been taught to New Mexican weavers by the Bazan brothers who were brought from Mexico City at the request of the Governor of New Mexico in 1807.