wool fleece

Sheep

The Spanish brought the first sheep to the Americas in the 16th century for meat, milk, hides and wool. The breed was well suited for the climate and topography of Oaxaca and the introduction of their wool was readily accepted by the weavers of Teotitlán del Valle.

Sheep's wool comes in a variety of colors, ranging from white and light cream colors to grays, tans, browns, and black. Sheep are often multi-colored or spotted. White wool is most often used for yarn because it dyes to a true color, but other colors of wool are also used. Some wool is not dyed at all and sometimes a non-white wool is dyed to give it a color that cannot be achieved from natural dyes alone. Another method used to create a color is blending different colors of wool when carding. This requires a finely honed sense of color, as the slightest variance in shades will stand out on a finished weaving.

The texture of wool can be very soft and fine. It is ideal for making yarn.

Sheep usually go about a year between shearings. By the end of a year-long growth period, their coat has gathered burrs, plant matter and some dirt. Even though wool naturally repels these impurities, the wool needs to be thoroughly cleaned. Raw wool material gives the most incredible depth to the Gutiérrez pieces, and often this raw material is used as is, undyed. This is done to honor the beauty of this important creature.

Churro sheep
These sheep have been sheared within the last few weeks.

Separating and Cleaning the Raw Wool

When it first comes off the sheep, the wool is matted and dirty. The first step in cleaning is to separate and open up the matted parts. Burrs, and other foreign matter are picked out by hand and the wool is "fluffed" to make washing more effective.

raw wool
A closeup of Churro wool as it comes from the sheep
Juana Gutiérrez and her mother cleaning wool
Juana Gutiérrez and her mother separate and open up the matted clumps of freshly shorn wool.

Washing the Raw Wool

After the preliminary cleaning process, the wool is taken down to river and washed with amole, Oaxaca's indigenous soap plant. The streaming water helps to rinse away the dirt and suds. Next to the river are large rocks that have been warmed by the sun and make an ideal place to set the newly washed wet wool. The solar heat helps with the drying process, and final drying can be done at home.

crushing the soap root
Amole root, the indigenous soap plant, is crushed with a rock to release its sudsy cleansing agent.
washing wool
After a pre-soak in amole suds, the wool is put into a basket for a thorough hand washing in the river.
washing wool in a basket
The type of basket used allows the water to flow through and cleanse the wool. The inside of this basket is ribbed, making it a handy washboard.
Piles of cleaned wool dry on warm rocks next to the river
Piles of cleaned wool dry on warm rocks next to the river

Carding and Prepping for Spinning

When the wool is dry, we comb it with carding paddles. This helps to further clean and align the fibers for spinning it into yarn. A carding paddle is like a large hair brush with metal bristles.

Carding wool
Carding wool
carding wool
This closeup of the carding paddles shows the metal teeth mounted to one side of a plywood board and a wooden handle attached to the back.
preparing wool for spinning
After carding, wool is worked into long strips to facilitate spinning it into yarn.
spinning yarn
Spinning yarn