NMSU Heritage Wool Project weaves together learning, industry

By Amanda Bradford ’03 ’21

Standing before a loom built more than a century ago by his grandfather, Richard Trujillo ’83 passes a shuttle wrapped with wool yarn through the weft as a unique design begins to take shape before him. Trujillo, a master weaver in Chimayo, New Mexico, is one thread in NMSU’s Heritage Wool Project, which brings together students and faculty in the Animal and Range Sciences and Family and Consumer Sciences departments to highlight the history and importance of the wool industry in New Mexico.

“The Heritage Wool Project is an initiative to re-establish the connection between NMSU and the sheep producers in the state,” says Jennifer Hernandez Gifford ’99 ’01, associate professor of animal and range sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. “New Mexico ranks 16th in the U.S. in sheep production. Wool sheep do well in the state because they are hardy, but wool production has dwindled some, due to the loss of the wool incentive and predation issues. We want to make sure we don’t lose the heritage of the wool industry in the state.”

Hernandez Gifford trains undergraduate and graduate students in both research and sheep production. NMSU is one of the last land-grant universities where animals are raised and maintained on campus, and it’s a draw for many students eager to work with livestock in preparation for careers in agriculture or veterinary medicine, she says.

While Hernandez Gifford’s students are learning more about wool processing after shearing NMSU’s flock of Rambouillet sheep and preparing about 1,000 pounds of fleece for processing into custom-dyed yarn, students in the Family and Consumer Sciences department’s fashion merchandising and design program are learning how to manage a collaborative textile design project, using that yarn to create a unique woven rug celebrating New Mexico’s culture and NMSU’s legacy.

Savannah Willingham, a senior in the program, worked closely with Kelley Cleary Coffeen ’94 ’14, a college assistant professor in Family and Consumer Sciences, and with Trujillo, who is a graduate of NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, to create the design for the rug, which features a color palette that includes NMSU’s distinctive crimson shade. Coffeen met Trujillo while researching the weaving process in northern New Mexico.

“As I spoke with him, he shared that he was an NMSU alum, and I knew we should collaborate on a project in the future combining his weavings with our fashion merchandising and design program,” Coffeen says.

Thus emerged a vision to interweave each aspect of the process and create a product that is uniquely NMSU, from raising and shearing the sheep to designing and creating a beautiful product imbued with meaning. When finished, the rug’s design will be revealed and it will be auctioned off to raise funds for the future of the Heritage Wool Project.

“We want this project to excite people about owning a piece of New Mexico’s wool heritage and NMSU’s legacy in it,” Hernandez Gifford says. “We hope it kicks off a continued interest, as we develop more wool products like stadium blankets, hats and scarves.”

For his part, Trujillo is pleased to put his hands to work on a project that emphasizes the importance of New Mexico’s weaving tradition.

“This project is very much about my cultural heritage,” Trujillo says. “Weaving was always in my life and my ancestors’ before me. My grandparents and those before them raised sheep. They sheared the sheep for wool, cleaned and carded the wool, spun the wool into yarn and wove blankets and rugs to be used or sold. It is good to see that NMSU’s College of ACES is promoting this activity, as it has a very long tradition in New Mexico.”

Savannah Willingham, fashion merchandising and design senior, worked with Kelley Cleary Coffeen, a college assistant professor in Family and Consumer Sciences, and Richard Trujillo, a master weaver, to create the rug design for NMSU's Heritage Wool Project.

Richard Trujillo is working with Jennifer Hernandez Gifford (top) and other NMSU faculty and students to create a woven rug celebrating New Mexico's culture and NMSU's legacy. The rug uses wool from Rambouillet sheep raised at NMSU.