December 2017

Making the Cibolero Shirt


Juanita J. Lavadie


We want an exhibit about traditional cloth from the New Mexico Río Grande Valley Hispanic tradition.” Looking at the faces of the board members, my thoughts flowed through years of weaving, oral history research, published manuscripts and conversations that brought me to discuss an exhibit that was shown in the historic Gutiérrez-Hubbell House, a cultural center in the South Valley of Albuquerque.


Drawing on my broad family roots, I have been mentored by generations of educators. Since childhood I heard stories of my maternal grandfather and his sisters, my tías, as they taught in Taos and throughout northern New Mexico. While they were responsible for one-room schools and the academic futures of students of varied ages and abilities, they traveled and interacted with village families. I am also descended from the Montoya family of El Valle, New Mexico, intergenerational weavers who predominantly produced wool tapestry frazadas (blankets) with the “El Valle” 8-pointed star pattern. Since childhood and beyond my university studies, I have listened to many family elders who still owned El Valle star blankets, which we examined together.


Vivid stories connected to those textiles emerged; stories were about weavings, about life experiences, shared chores and work, about singular individuals, and about joys and tragedies of ancestral events. Weaving on a traditional loom had skipped two generations until I picked up the practice. Often, I had to troubleshoot solutions to technical problems I encountered. Through dreams, I would channel inspiration from ancestors I came to know through the gathered stories. 


Over time I produced handspun sabanilla (plain weave wool cloth) and durable jerga (twill weave cloth), while experimenting with varied wool fibers, including South American alpaca. Along with family stories, I learned about the late-1700 to mid-1800 ciboleros, Spanish buffalo hunters. The stories romanticized what these hunters faced in the eastern llanos (plains) of the Comanchería (Comanche) territory. Expeditions were filled with many dangers, including the possibility of getting caught in early winter blizzards. I remember when Cleofes Vigil, a nationally celebrated folk artist and philosopher of San Cristóbal, New Mexico, would sing the ballad of Juan de Dios Maes, a lancer killed in a buffalo hunt accident.


Work shirts for these intrepid hunters were often made of jerga cloth. Photos from the 1860s show burros packed for caravan travel with goods bound in jerga. Today, one can see this same block-plaid in commercial flannel work shirts, described in catalogues as “buffalo plaid.”


Over the years, I played with the idea of making an old-time shirt for an imagined lancero hunter, heading out with his lance and a crucial, intimate working relationship with his horse as they chased down in a stampeding buffalo herd. He needed functional clothing that would not impede or be dangerous on the job.


My Proposal: At the board meeting, I expressed the idea, which had been brewing in the back of my mind for a long time. I would make a prototype of the original buffalo plaid work shirt to honor a hunting tradition that had sustained many families during New Mexico’s colonial days. I would spin wool and weave it. The prepared cloth would be cut and hand-stitched, with the same wool yarn, into a work shirt. My idea was met with unanimous support. The title of the exhibit was decided: Ciboleros, Comancheros and the People Back Home. The exhibit would not be limited to the shirt’s production. Family participation for a successful buffalo hunt expedition would also be highlighted.


Conceptualizing and Making the Shirt

Approximately five yards of jerga cloth was needed. The process began with spinning. Fleece–white and rich dark brown and fat in lanoline–from Jaramillo family Ramboulet-Corriedale sheep was used. The shirt needed more than a mile of spun yarn, half and half of each color. Spinning took months. I had previously woven sabanilla cloth and vegetal-dyed handspun yarns to produce an additional colcha-stitch embroidered buffalo image. An Ojo de Perdiz (diamond) twill jerga cloth made a chaleco (vest).


Research continued for more stories and details on cibolero expeditions. A bibliography of resources continued to grow. What would a work shirt from colonial days look like? No examples are available. Think about it. What would be a typical destiny of a work shirt in times of survival with limited resources? My grandmother’s emphatic words echoed, “¡Sabíamos como sernos buen pobres!” (“We knew how to be smartly poor.”) Nothing was left to waste; a good work shirt would be patched and recycled until all that remained was cloth remnants, used to wipe up and clean.


Jerry Padilla’s posthumously published Taos Ciboleros: Hispanic Bison Hunters–Taos, A Topical History, provided great information. A Cibolero expedition needed a specific permit from the Santa Fe Precidio’s (governor’s) headquarters. For efficient operation, a campaign was organized with the mayordomo (foreman-boss), hunters, skinners and meat packers, along with a camp crew and hard-working family members. Survival was key and efficient work habits were crucial. Everyone, young and old, helped in preparation of provisions, food, primed equipment and clothing. In the event of encounters with Comanches or other tribes, specific trade items were taken to use for negotiating permission to hunt on sovereign tribal lands. Expeditions typically set out right after cosecha (harvest). With the austerity of survival, any work, including spinning and weaving, could not be taken for granted. The shirt pattern had to be basic woven rectangles, eliminating any unnecessary confection fluff.


Juanita J. Lavadie’s embroidery with handspun yarn on woven sabanilla tells a story.



While seeking out local historians and families with ancestral cibolero connections, I also communicated with curators of textiles and Spanish colonial arts at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Museum, as well as the Nebraska Museum of Fur Trade, and museums in Oklahoma and west Texas. Conversations with aficionados of the Mountain Man Rendezvous confirmed my thoughts. A basic work shirt was made of woven rectangles: bodice, sleeves, armpit gusset and tab collar, loose enough to slip over but not too long to create chaffing discomfort with hours of sitting on a saddle. At the same time, it had to be long enough to protect the kidneys and lower back from cold winds. It would be worn loosely to facilitate work. To eliminate a need to roll up sleeves for work, the sleeve pattern would be three-quarter length without cuffs, slightly tapered below the elbow to prevent wind from going up the sleeve. The shirt would have an ample gusset for armpit aeration and easy movement. This was particularly crucial for hunting within a stampeding buffalo heard while utilizing a lance, munition, or bow and arrow. The hunter could wear a chaleco over the shirt. A leather sheepskin coat could be worn over that during bad weather. A final layer would be a wool poncho, which also served as part of a bedroll. Leather pants, hat, boots, pouches, knife sheaths, bufandas (scarves), gloves or mittens, belts… all would add to the completed outfit according to the needs and taste of the individual hunter.  


Around 6,000 feet of yarn was spun and the weaving began. My loom has a maximum 22-inch weaving width. Length was limited only by the amount of available spun yarn. During colonial days, many family members of varied skill would spin yarn. Plaid patterns visually disguised the yarn variations. Skilled family weavers would do the weaving.


The patrón and the mayordomo of the expedition would organize the preparations, while a stalwart matriarch efficiently managed the family hacienda or rancho. Survival depended on everyone’s contributions. A successful hunt would ensure plentitude during cold winters. Smoked buffalo tongue, a highly valued delicacy, was packed and transported down the Camino Real to México City. Once the expedition set out on the perilous journey to the east, family members who stayed home would maintain routines that included diligent prayers for the expedition’s safety. Hunting accidents, inclement weather and encounters with hostile tribes brought on a constant wariness, if not fear. One can imagine the frequent sound of clicking rosary beads during dark nights.



Jerga is easy and fast to weave. The durable cloth still has utilitarian uses in México. Once pulled off the loom, a simple method of alternating boiling and ice water dips allowed pre-shrinking, and would partly felt the cloth to avoid unraveling once it was cut for stitching together. To further stabilize the jerga, stay-stitching was added along the anticipated cut-lines. The cut out block pieces were sewn together with additional blanket-stitch edging–more insurance against unraveling. Nineteenth-century historian, Josiah Gregg, in his accounts of encounters of Ciboleros, indicated that the hunters wore clothing with tassels and fringes. Without use of buttons, lacing and fringed edges of woven clothing could show these embellishments as part of the composition structure. Aesthetics of dress would evolve through trades. Indulging in the aesthetics of tribes encountered would ensure better negotiations. A good shirt would be a worthy trade item.


 The cibolero shirt being woven on a loom


The shirt I created was ready to make a strong visual presentation in the exhibit. It had presence, but there was no time for fitting or alterations. I knew that the girth was not ample for comfortable wear. Can one imagine going out onto the llano on a buffalo hunt without generous feasting on buffalo? Clothing was often altered or patched to accommodate body changes.


Cibolero (New Mexico buffalo hunter) shirt woven by Juanita J. Lavadie. Lavadie’s work is based on extensive research of oral history and historic photos. She has also traced the lineage of male and female weavers of the late 1800s and early 1900s and identified their individual motif preferences.


Once the exhibit was over and the shirt was returned, I wove two long basic-weave belts from the same yarn. To my satisfaction, the belt weight matched the cloth. Unstitching and separating the sleeve and gusset from the bodice, the belts were added front to back on each side to widen the shirt around the body. Using two thin-weave plaid belt pieces, I attached each under the bottom point of the armpit’s rhombus-shaped gusset. With the addition of about 10 inches around the waist, I had the shirt I wanted. Of virgin spun yarn and weave, and from local wool, it could be worn on a rugged outdoor quest. One could sleep in it if needed. After days on end over a five-six weeklong hunt, with sweat and weather exposure, it would likely adapt to the contours of the hunter, making it a very personal shirt. This shirt could have been a life-saving garment for outdoor expedition experiences. One can imagine more stories to be told.


Two thin-weave plaid belt pieces from the same yarn were added to widen the shirt.


Juanita J. Lavadie, from Taos, New Mexico, a fiber and graphic artist, is a retired teacher. She is active with acequias (traditional irrigation water sharing) and has a companion dog, Chulita, who is very smart.


Lavadie embroidering a historic map




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