Sheep and Wool
The breed of sheep brought by the Spanish to New Mexico is called Navajo-Churro or Churro. It is a hardy breed, well suited to the extremes of our local climate and terrain. It is common for churro to bear twins, which would certainly be advantageous from the point of view of hungry sheep owners. Its wool is not as greasy as most breeds, requiring less precious water and shorter preparation time for the spinner. Churro wool has a luster that, in a lot of old pieces, has an almost silky look. Its fleece also has what is commonly described as a “double coat”. Similar to a cat’s, there is a thick lower layer of fine wool, with longer, coarser, fibers interspersed forming a sort of shaggy-looking outer layer.
For centuries in Spain there were two prominent breeds of sheep. The merino sheep were the “royal” breed and were protected from leaving Spain by the Spanish crown. Merino wool is still the finest wool fiber around, but it is no longer confined to Spain. Churro sheep were the peasant breed, and were allowed to go with colonists across the ocean to the new world. The first churro came to New Mexico with the first settlers in 1598, when they settled not far from Chimayo, by San Juan Pueblo. The original sheep probably didn’t survive to leave their legacy here, but subsequent settlers brought more sheep and the hardy churro thrived. By the mid-nineteenth century, flocks of sheep were big enough that they were driven by the thousands to be sold beyond the borders of New Mexico in mining towns in Mexico, and, as trains approached our state, to board trains for consumption elsewhere. Wool and blankets were also important trade items.
As the market for wool began to demand a finer fiber, the mercantile traders in New Mexico began replacing churro sheep with other, finer breeds. These breeds were mostly descendants of the merino sheep, mainly Rambouillet. These sheep were larger and produced bigger and more valuable fleeces. By the mid-twentieth century there were very few churro to be found. In the 1970’s the breed was declared to be endangered, and people began work on reinstating the breed and encouraging its use, both in Navajo and Hispanic communities. They were successful in their efforts and the breed is now no longer endangered but is still listed as a rare breed.
Most of the wool spun by the weavers associated with Centinela is churro. Irvin Trujillo’s sister, Pat Trujillo Oviedo, raises churro sheep here at La Centinela, and we often spin up her fleeces. We have a number of other sources for wonderful churro fleeces from other flocks that live here in our area. We also often weave churro yarn spun at the Mora Valley Wool Mill.