Words and photos by leticia gonzales
Toni Broaddus with the dye vats and skeins of freshly dyed wool at Tierra Wools.
It is running toward early afternoon in Chama, and I am sitting with Molly and Antonio Manzanares outside their store, Tierra Wools. Travelers of US 64 are beckoned by a vibrant wooden sign just off the highway, and a stand of trees, now bare. I was greeted, enthusiastically, by Molly’s dog, Roni, as I approached the front porch, a long, welcoming place hung with bright weavings.
The sheep have come down off the mountain, and classes have concluded for the year, but work never stops around here. Molly and Antonio both work directly with the sheep and run Shepherd’s Lamb together. Molly manages both the brick-and-mortar store and online retail space, and Antonio sells meat every week at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market and coordinates all of the deliveries. Once the sheep are off the mountain, there are animals to harvest, meat to take to the processing plant in Durango, pelts to ship, wool to process—Molly and Antonio work with small mills throughout the United States to process their wool, but all of the dyeing is done at their place in Chama—and, of course, the sheep themselves to care for. All of this happens before the weavers can weave and the cooks can cook, a fact not lost on anyone here. Antonio spends precious minutes of his busy day explaining the concept of a primary economy to me while we sit and talk. Shepherd’s Lamb produces resources, something happening less and less in the United States: we have outsourced resource production and manufacturing for the last several decades, and businesses like the Manzanareses’ had started to see the consequences of that firsthand since long before the pandemic-related supply-chain problems we are seeing now.
Molly has been thinking about resources since they first went into business, back in the early eighties. Both Tierra Wools and Shepherd’s Lamb grew out of a nonprofit, Ganados del Valle, which was started as a way to foster conversation about access to resources in the area. “We had formed different committees, and Tierra Wools came out of the wool committee,” she tells me, sitting with Antonio and their store manager, Nathaniel Chavez. “We sat and tried to identify . . . resources . . . what we had. Of course, the sheep were the main thing. Then we talked about problems, and one of the problems . . . was what to do with the wool. We didn’t actually talk about the meat right away.” Mistakenly, I had wondered whether meat was the primary resource driving the business. Molly and Antonio assure me that the wool has always come first.
Nathaniel’s family has been there since the beginning. His grandfather Leandro Chavez was the first shepherd to show Antonio how to be on the range with the sheep during the summer months. His grandmother Francisquita “Kika” Chavez was a weaver who worked closely with Molly as she was learning the craft. Antonio remembers Leandro as a quiet man, a wonderful teacher even without many words. Nathaniel has been weaving since he was a child and has spent a great part of his life at Tierra Wools. His mother, Sophia, started coming to weaving classes in 1986 and remains an integral part of the place to this day. Along with his sister, Savannah, Nathaniel, Sophia, and Molly are the core weavers of Tierra Wools—the “house weavers,” I dub them, to general agreement. When I tell Nathaniel I’m excited to see one of his weavings, Antonio tells me they fly off the shelves. It’s rare that a Nathaniel Chavez weaving is around very long—they’re the first to sell. Both Nathaniel and Molly teach in addition to their weaving duties, and they split business tasks.
When I ask Nathaniel what his favorite part of his job is, he is quick to answer. “Being creative, especially with the weaving. You get to make something, like, whatever you can come up with out of your head.” With all of the different things going on around this place—Nathaniel and Sophia also do all of the chemical dyeing for Tierra Wools, on its own a significant feat given the abundance of color diversity represented in their products—it can be difficult to find the time to weave. Nathaniel assures me that he makes it a point to get on a loom every day, “at least for half an hour.” It doesn’t surprise me that it takes two master weavers to keep a place like Tierra Wools operating smoothly. Weavers have long been extolled as complex and powerful thinkers precisely because of their craft. There is no end to what needs to be done around here on a daily basis, and Molly is frank and generous when she tells me she wonders (but only sometimes!) why she’s still doing it.
“I have a pull to be outside.” I can’t help but be touched, deeply, by the look on Molly’s face as she tells me this, turned toward the sun, unburdened by her honesty. Doubly so when Antonio adds, “If the truth be known, Molly would rather be the sheep herder, and be out there all by herself with her dog and her horses.” It is a poignant moment for me, as I am navigating a similar frustration with finding my work indoors these days—I farmed, happily, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and would still be tending the late-fall crops were it not for persistent and mysterious nerve symptoms making physical labor inaccessible to me. My own pull to be outside is strong and unheeded these days, and I am resonant with the deep frustration of having to lay it down to tend to other things for a while.
Tierra Wools off US 64 just south of Chama.
Molly’s work finds her inside because that is where she is needed. She is a significant part of the business mind that keeps Shepherd’s Lamb and Tierra Wools integrated and afloat. While Nathaniel was busy coordinating pulling things down, packing them up, and taking them to the new place during the move, Molly was busy with the work of setting them up in the new place. The old store in Los Ojos was often difficult for people to find, tucked down a small and winding road off the main highway; despite ample signage on the part of the store, many passersby never ventured the trek into the small town. Molly, Antonio, and Nathaniel all agree that the store in Chama—readily visible as it is from the highway—does a more robust business, and Antonio breaks down for me the changing demographics he notices in people driving US 64, a breakdown as nuanced as his observations of weather patterns. There was a significant downsizing when they moved to their new building, and Molly shows me where they’ve erected two storage lockers beside the dye shops. I can see that she’s thinking through problems and finding potential solutions even as she’s showing me around the dye vats and skeins of freshly dyed wool.
Everyone is generous around here. Molly’s sister, Toni Broaddus, spends almost half an hour showing me—a really enthusiastic amateur dyer—around the workshop where she dyes for the store using flowers and herbs. She has long skeins of grey Churro wool she is dyeing using black walnut husks, which yield a rich and velvety brown in a stunning array of tones throughout the dye bath. Unlike chemical dyes, the pigments in natural dyes diminish with each new batch of wool that’s run through the bath. It takes a large yield of harvested plant matter to achieve the kinds of color Toni coaxes from the dye pots: salmons and corals and vermilions from madder root; red brown from dock root if the root is red, coffee brown from dock root if the root is not; chamisa and cota yielding soft yellows, goldenrods, tansies; indigo overdyes turning reds purple and yellows green. It is as stunning as seeing the first lettuce yield of the season being washed in hallucinatory flashes of chartreuse and ultraviolet in the summer’s sun, or reveling in the bright violet blooms of midafternoon borage.
“La borrega es muy agradecida; the sheep is a grateful animal,” Antonio tells me. “She’ll give you her wool, she’ll give you her lamb for meat, and then when she’s old she’ll sacrifice herself too.”
The move to Chama has been really significant for Tierra Wools, Molly tells me. “It’s made it all possible,” she says, in her measured and thoughtful way. She sees herself as a realist, someone who “sees that something is wrong and says, ‘Okay, what do we have to do to fix this?’” The story of finding herself running this business is a long one, something she might never have anticipated when the wool committee dreamed up the original idea, together, over thirty years ago. Molly and Antonio took over ownership of Tierra Wools in 2012. Before that, it was run as an employee-owned gallery and shop, governed collectively. The split from Ganados del Valle, the transition inside the business—each step has been difficult. All of the changes that have occurred in Tierra Wools in the last nine years have come directly out of Molly’s continued engagement with both the problems and the resources. She finds solutions. In the past, she has worked other jobs to supplement the income from both businesses; she has forfeited her deep desire to be working primarily with the animals because she is so good at what she does at Tierra Wools; she even sets aside the quietude and solace of weaving to teach, something difficult for both of the introverted weavers I am sitting with today, Molly and Nathaniel.
Still, all three of the people in front of me are adamant that they enjoy and find value in what they do; their work ethic is inspiring. Our conversation has not shied from hard places today—the waning number of weavers; the dearth of youth interested in or able to learn these disappearing economies and trades; the condition of our health-care system; the economy; these places of deep transition we have all been moving to and through in the last few years. I am anchored and buoyed by the feeling of solidarity in these last warm hours. Antonio assures me the beginning of the cold is near. “They knew things,” he tells me about the shepherds he came up learning with. All three of these people are poised at the confluence of multiple bodies of knowledge, and they know things, too—not what’s coming, but what has come to be and how. They are living vessels of information. They are wondering how their labor and knowledge will be compensated. Aren’t we all?
Toni Broaddus tending dye vats and loom at Tierra Wools.
There is something really comforting about good work.
Molly: “I felt a comfort in a way because . . . we know we’ll always have food, and we’ll always have a blanket, you know? We closed the store for a while [during the pandemic], but things just kept going. We have to use the computer, but we’re not dependent upon the computer to make a living.”
Antonio: “We’ve really worked hard trying to use everything . . . you know, we sell sheep eyes, we sell yarn, we sell blankets, we sell whatever we can to try to use all of the resources we have. We try to use local resources like Nathaniel and Sophie—you know, those are resources for the whole community, and we’re resources for the whole community. It’s hard to be a profit in your own land.”
The Manzanareses have been thinking about resources for a long time now. They have worked hard, used all that they could, trained and employed skilled craftspeople and artisans, remained flexible, called out problems, and they are still churning out solutions. Their integrated businesses have been anchors and places of resource for their community as long as they’ve been in business. They continue to do hard work to remain profitable and in place.
I’m struck by the metaphorical power of the two primary resources represented here: fiber and food. Both knit us together, in ourselves and to one another. Imagine a simple scene, set at any time at all: There is a cold wind outside, and the rain or the snow is coming. You are warm, and dry, and safe. You are wearing clothes prepared by someone who loves you, whose busy hands tended the loom all winter long; you are eating food prepared by someone who loves you, whose wise hands measured out spices and precious foodstuffs to feed you. The measure at the end of all work is to be fed, body and soul. Let us thank the people who feed us, body and soul.
leticia gonzales lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico.