Press: Alpacas Magazine: Navajo Rug Weaving with Alpaca – Clashing Traditions - Winter 2010
In-depth article and photographs in the
ALPACAS Magazine Winter 2010
The article is typed below for easy reading…
What happens when you take the best of both worlds, and combine them? The result can amaze and astonish, as followers of Navajo textiles are discovering thanks to John Igini and Steve Getzwiller. These two men are, to their knowledge, the only ones who are combining alpaca fibers with the skill of Navajo weavers, using an untraditional fiber in their very traditional process. It’s a partnership where Igini provides the fleece from the 26 alpacas he raises, and Getzwiller uses his connections and knowledge from more than 30 years of working with weavers on the Navajo reservation. “Sure, I could go up to the reservation and get weavers,”
Igini says. “But, I wouldn’t have nearly the same quality I’d get working with Steve, because Steve works only with the best.” Igini and Getzwiller, who are best of friends with homes in Sonoita, Arizona, come from completely different backgrounds… and yet they share a common bond: their deep appreciation for Navajo textiles. “I grew up in Chicago,” says Igini, “and my mother and father collected art, so I had always had an appreciation for art. I just switched my subject, somewhat, from what I grew up He came out to Arizona to go to college, and never left. His appreciation for the Southwest, its lifestyle and culture grew. Igini began collecting Navajo weavings, spending more and more time with those knowledgeable about the subject. That’s how he heard about Steve Getzwiller, considered one of the West’s most outstanding experts on the subject. Steve is a native Arizonan and a 5th generation rancher. He’s spent more than 30 years immersed in this art form. “I’m a collector first,” he says. “I only commission what I would want to own.”
Getzwiller, always looking to push this medium to the next level, had a few of the weavers he works with create pieces using silk and a silk-merino blend, instead of wool only from sheep. That’s what got his friend, John Igini, thinking about alpacas. “I knew about them, and I knew how fine their fleece was, but I don’t think I’d even touched one. I knew that down in South America they’ve been weaving with alpaca fiber for 6,000 years, with some of the best weavings, just incredible, from there. So I thought if the Navajo ladies could just work with this wonderful fiber, we could make much nicer weavings than with the sheep’s wool.”
He started with eight alpacas, four males and four females, all Huacayas. “The first couple of years,” Igini says, “I didn’t have enough fiber, so I was just buying fiber from other alpaca ranchers in the area, to have enough to send to the mill.” (Now, with 26 alpacas, he’s sending an average of 125 pounds to a mill in Ruidoso, New Mexico, giving him a yield of about 100 pounds of wool annually.)
Once Igini had the yarn and chose a design, it was in Getzwiller’s hands to find the right weaver to try it. He chose Kathy Marianito, a direct descendant of Manuelito, a legendary 19th century Navajo chief. Despite her deep ties to the past, it wasn’t a problem with her, or a few of the other weavers he works with trying something new instead of the traditional Churro sheep wool. “There was no resistance,” he says, “because they’ve already been through the silk phase.
This is a small corps of experienced weavers already accustomed to working with exotic fibers.” “I’ve been weaving all my life,” she says. “So did my mother, my grandmother…I love to weave, and I always wanted to do different things with it. This is much finer, (alpaca fiber)… almost like the size of thread you can hardly see.”
The result was stunning, and surprised many, including Kathy’s uncle, who is a medicine man, and was holding a blessing ceremony for weavers. Kathy Marianito relayed the story to Getzwiller of the medicine man’s reaction when she brought out the blanket she wove with “He was really surprised!” she says. “He said it was real good…really beautiful!”
“I was expecting that they would be significantly resistant because it was not woven with the traditional fiber associated with it,” says Getzwiller. “But, he was just completely taken with the fact the end result was like a blanket unlike anything he’d probably seen in Navajo weavings, in terms of the texture and how it felt.” It confirmed what Igini had believed, that the beauty would be there along with the softness.
“That’s what got me interested in doing it, the blankets (instead of rugs). If something sits on the floor, it doesn’t matter how soft it is. But, if you’re wearing it, wrapped up in it or using it as a blanket on a bed, it’s nice to have it a little bit softer.” Spinning the wool of course makes a difference, and alpaca is naturally a finer yarn in texture as well as softer. It also has no lanolin associated with it, when compared to Churro.
“Although you can spin Churro as fine as alpaca, the alpaca’s always going to be softer than the Churro wool,” according to Igini. “Then there’s the weaver,” he says, “the touch they use has to do with the softness. Some weavers pack down the yarn harder when they’re weaving, and then it’s not as soft. Kathy has just the perfect way of handling it, so whatever she does is softer than someone else doing the same weaving. It’s just amazing.”
It was the first of several. Igini has had 16 pieces, primarily shawls and blankets, all made from the wool of his alpacas over a span of seven years. “Not a lot of productivity there,” he says with a laugh, and is quick to add how this is one business which is all about quality over quantity. It’s time consuming work, all done by hand, with pieces taking an average of four to nine months to make. With a bedspread, you’re looking at nine months or longer for one that’s 7
Igini proudly displays several on the walls of his restaurant, “The Velvet Elvis” in Patagonia, Arizona. He has more at home on his walls, a bed, or on his wife’s shoulders. “It’s ‘wearable art’. You can hang it as a shawl on the wall, or drape it on your couch, or, if you get cold you can wrap yourself up in it.” It’s the “wearable” part that makes this art form so very different. It’s also what adds to the appeal, as Igini found out when one of his alpaca shawls was literally purchased off of his “We were at Steve’s ‘Next Phase’ exhibit at Dos Caballeros Museum in Wickenburg. I think I had five weavings in it which I owned. My wife Cecilia was wearing an alpaca shawl, and one lady there really loved it! It wasn’t in the exhibit and my wife was just wearing it there, but this woman just had to have it and bought it right there!”
When you arrive at Igini’s ranch, the Bar I G in Sonoita, you can’t help but see his alpacas, as during much of the day they have the run of the property. That is, until feeding time, when he gets all of their attention. Walking among them and stroking them, talking softly, Igini points out each animal and their different characteristics and personalities. He makes it clear his alpacas are not for show. “I’m more into textiles,” he says firmly, but with a smile.
“Even though I’ve sold a couple of pieces, that wasn’t my objective in the beginning. It wasn’t so much to sell, but to surround myself with beautiful things and to be involved in.
As for Getzwiller, he continues to look ahead to the next level, the next phase, which a few years ago he pointed out were blankets. In a way, it’s bringing the Navajo tradition full circle, because that’s originally what their weavings focused on in the 19th century. With the introduction of machine-made blankets in the 1890’s, the Navajos adapted with it, shifting their talents to rugs. It’s coming back to blankets, as Getzwiller gently nudges his weavers to use their traditional methods but with new designs, colors, sizes…and fibers. He sees this pairing of alpaca fiber and Navajo talent as a natural when it comes to blankets and shawls.
“The Incas were responsible for probably the finest weavings ever produced in the world,” he says. “The next finest weaving tradition is with the Navajos.” Two distinct art forms, two distinctly traditional fibers, and two men with their own ideas… all coming together in a result which is beautiful to look at, and still soft enough to wear.