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Shawn Tafoya
Santa Clara Pueblo

Transcript of  an Interview conducted 1/21/03 in Santa Clara.

[The interviewers questions and remarks are in red italics.]

Embroidery Artists
Lydia Chinana

Mabel Fragua
Isabel Gonzales
Evelyn Bird Quintana
Romancita Sandoval
Shawn Tafoya


Tell me about your family, your pueblo, where you come from

I’m half from Pojoaque, and half from Santa Clara. I was born in 1968 in Santa Fe and raised in Santa Clara. I guess I grew up in a fairly traditional family. We did all the traditional things, going to pick plants, and make pottery. For my embroidery, when I started there was really no one else in the family who did embroidery. We had a large collection, not personally, but my grandfather and other uncles had a large collection. So when I saw my grandfather I was always really excited to see them come out, even though they smelled like mothballs, because they kept them in mothballs, all their Indian clothes. And I was excited when I saw them come out and to be worn and danced in. And I always wondered how did they do that or who makes those. There were just a few people, but being small I didn’t know who in the pueblo makes those, but I really didn’t ask or anything. I was always excited about those kinds of textiles.

So I started on my own. I went to town and bought a few skeins of yarn, traditional colors, black, green and red, and I had some monks cloth. My mom had taken courses at the facilities, but she had never really finished any of her projects so she had these bolts and bolts of fabric. So I started stitching here and there and figuring out what to do. I didn’t get everything right but it came out okay. That was about around age 11 or 12.

So your knowledge, you were self-taught?

Yes, but I read a lot of books by the time I was 15 or 16, and from then I started reading a lot and understood you had to respin your yarn and wash your material. The first piece I made I didn’t wash the material, and when we went to the cleaners it shrunk 2 inches on each side.

Were you able to fix that?

It wasn’t bunchy, but I just ironed it out, taking a wet cloth and then pressed it out. It was smaller but still usable.

For the designs that you use now, do you use traditional ones like from your Grandfather’s pieces? And do you do mostly traditional or contemporary?

I work in everything. I work from prehistoric all the way to contemporary with my own designs. Of course I have to do a lot of stuff that is traditional that is acceptable for the people, for certain dances they have to have a certain kind of textile. so I do that, but I also do a little bit more contemporary stuff which are my own designs or different colors.

In the Santa Clara, are there many embroiderers?

I know about six embroiderers that probably do it frequently, not every day but maybe 6 or 7 kilts a year.

Do you know any male embroiderers?

Not from Santa Clara.

Me either. What about from other communities?

From other communities I do. From Tesuque, a lot from Santa Domingo, and from San Felipe.

And of course from Hopi, the men were traditionally the weavers and embroiderers.

Like I said, I know who they are but I don’t know them personally. But I know they’re out there.

I think it’s fascinating that from age 11, that your mom didn’t finish her projects, and you picked it up. How did that make you feel, or did you just do it? Just tell me about that.

Coming from a community where there are no male embroiderers, but I knew there was from reading books, I wasn’t afraid. I’m not afraid to do anything, if I want to do something I’ll do it. And so I wasn’t afraid, of what people would say. That didn’t even hit my mind, I just went out and did it.

But it was a feeling inside of you?

I wanted to bring back something that was being lost. There were a few people doing it, but they weren’t bringing it back into that, with all that, how should I say, to bring it back to that fullness, as it should be, with new designs and new colors. New designs, and even the fabric can be new colors. I looked at the kiva paintings, I saw, like at the ruins, and in the books, the variety of fabrics they had then, we only have this much, where they used to have this much that was used a long time ago. That’s what I was real interested in, to bring it back into that fullness, for the people, and hopefully I’ve done a little bit, I still have a lot to go, to get the kids interested excited about it and want to do it.

Did you ever take a class?


But you’ve taught classes? Tell me about that.

We started at Santa Clara. And that was just a pilot project to get it going. There was a large turn out, all ladies. Probably about 70% finished their projects. And they all finished kilts, and they turned out excellent pieces. From there we went to Poeh Center in Pojoaque, and I went for 7 or 8 years, and from there we had men embroiderers coming in from San Ildefonso, and from Tesuque and from San Juan. So that was real, kind of broke down that barrier, to bring in men, because that’s traditionally men’s work.

Doesn’t it make you feel good that there are all these people from these 8 communities who will spread this to their kids?

Yeah, I’m real happy. I don’t think of it in that way, that I touched all these people, I just, what it does is what its going to do and how they’re going to pass it on. I’m real happy about it. When everybody’s there they bring their own traditions and designs, and everybody shares that information when we have classes. So not only do I teach, I learn from them also, about traditions and how to do this, and this is how my grandma does this...

You’re always teaching, and always learning. You said you were 11 when you started, and then have you just, always then..

Yeah, I’ve embroidered all the way through, and of course I do pottery too, and if I get tired of embroidery I do pottery. And then I do paintings too. But this the embroidery takes a lot of time, a lot more time than pottery.

I made a manta once, and boy it’s not..good but it took me forever, and I thought if I had to make a living doing this....What percentage of your work do you do for ceremonial use, and how much for commercial work?

Probably 70% goes to here, or the communities, and the other 30% to sell. Those are mostly wall hangings, not mantas or kilts. They want contemporary stuff to hang on their walls.

Even when they’re traditional, for dances and things, so that you’re still able to make a living when you make things for traditional use. Or do you give them away?

Sometimes, when they come and ask in a traditional way with prayers and all that I’ll give it to them, if it’s for a certain dance or whatever. Later on that’ll come back, usually they’ll bring back jewelry, or blankets, Pendletons. And but if it’s for that purpose I’ll give it to them, because it will give you a longer life, help you in your work, and it’s traditional, that’s how we do things. So I don’t charge for those. But like this Christmas, I had an order for a manta, and they gave me half in an elk mount, and half in cash.

Shawn when you’re working on, like traditional designs...but when you’re working on contemporary things, where do you get your designs?

A lot from books. Some from older pottery. Prehistoric pottery like Anasazi, Mesa Verde, and Chaco canyon, that area, I find a lot of designs from there. And then also from looking at nature, the colors, that inspires me also.

When you are in the pueblos, or on Thursdays at San I for feast, when you look at the dancers, can you recognize your work immediately?

Usually I can, and a lot of time they’ll borrow stuff. Last year I loaned out the mantas for the deers, for the kilts. It gives you a good feeling when they borrow stuff, from the other pueblos, it makes you feel good inside, to know your stuff is being borrowed and worn in a good way, hopefully it will bring a little happiness to everyone who looks at it.

So you can recognize your own patterns and designs. When you have classes, how do you recognize that someone is going to be really good at embroidery, what makes a piece special in your mind?

Well, even when I go to a show, arts & crafts or museum, or looking at the textiles at SAR, you look at the front and it looks clean and nice. But what I do is I look at the back, turn it over and see how their stitches are. And if they’re all over the place then that’s a person who really needs to focus on doing it a lot better. But if their stitches are al in order, then that’s a good excellent piece. They may both look good on the front, but you’ve gotta look at the back.

I’m going to suspect that, you were raised traditionally in the community, so probably culture, family, and community have played a big part in your desire to embroider?

Well, they, my parents gave me encouragement to do what I wanted to do, not only in embroidery but in pottery. They gave me boundaries on what maybe I’m not supposed to do, but inside those I could do whatever I wanted to do. There are certain designs that you’re not supposed to put on pottery or on textiles. The family was always encouraging, and my brothers and sisters too. And now I’m trying to teach them but they really don’t want to do it. But my brother knows how to spin my yarn, he’ll spin my yarn when I’m working on project, he’ll spin my yarn. But the only one who’s shown much interest is my niece. Hopefully that’s one person who’ll take it up.

I wondered if there were people in your family who might pass it on. Do you keep your patterns?

I just keep my graphs that I use for designing, I keep those. But those get messed up too, by handling and they get dirty and they fly around when the wind comes in. But I try to keep them in order. And then my pictures, of course, of things I’ve made, mostly all of them, but sometimes I don’t get to take a picture, especially when entering for Indian Market or Eight Northern, and there’s no time, you just have to turn it in.

I know you spin your own yarn. It would be wonderful if we could see you do that. Where do you get your materials, do you dye your own wool and where do you get your monks cloth?

Okay, my material, I used to get it in Bernallilo but they closed their shop, and the next place was Bonanza City in Santa Fe. And that’s where I get it now. It’s really expensive to buy the material, it’s almost 20 dollars a yard, but that’s the only place I know where to get it. And you ask, can I get the company’s name, but they don’t want to give it to you ‘cuz they’re making the money there. My yarn, I’ll look around, acrylic yarns I’ll get at Wal Mart or Hobby Lobby at Santa Fe. But the wool yarns, I used to get in Santa Fe, but the stores keep closing. So now I get it from Taos.

Do you use acrylics for some things and wool for other things?

The wool I’ll use for things I have to enter for Indian Market or shows, no acrylics or cotton, they’ll ask for wool. And for a project for a kilt, it depends on the buyer if they want acrylic. sometimes the colors, acrylics come in really bright colors where the wool is more softer, subdued or softer. And some of the older people like the wool yarns more. The young people like the acrylics. Sometimes I’ll combine them.

Can people specify the shade?

Oh yeah, I’ll bring in six different colors of red, or whatever. I’ll do a graph for them and then I’ll sketch it out and then they’ll pick out the colors, and then I’ll pull out a little string and put in on with tape, and make sure that everything’s okay.

Can you spin a little for us? Can you show us how you spin? When we saw Evelyn, she showed us the fingerweaving. Do you do that?

I know how but I don’t do it because it takes a while.

This one is acrylic yarn, hunter green, and a 4 ply. So what you’ll do is tie a knot on here. Then this will go inside the bowl, but the bowl’s so loud, when my family’s sleeping, it’s too loud, so I’ll do it in my shoe. Different embroiderers spin in different ways. Some hold it way up here, which hurts my arm, so I don’t do it so far away. I’m going to force this part, the top of the spindle forward, it’ll always go the way the yarn comes so this will go forward.

So it’ll make it tighter?

Yes. And I’ll be counting (counts)

so you’re just making that piece tighter..not putting it on the spindle.

Yes, but I’m going to put it on the spindle. (counts)


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I’m not wearing the right clothes either. I’m usually wearing my shorts, because it’s better on the skin. Also for making belts and stuff, you’d spin it double that amount, maybe 30 times, to get that real tightness. A lot of people don’t spin it, and when you wear it it’ll get those little balls on it.


I’ll do this when I’m watching tv or watching the kids, my nieces and nephews...I’ll be spinning.

What is the next step after you’ve spun the whole skein?

The next step is...what we’re gonna do is put it on this tray, a plastic tray, not too heavy like the cafeteria. Anything that’s plastic, like this one is a microwave tray. What I’ll do is put it between my laces, and there will be the whole skein on here, and I’ll wrap it around, and when you’re doing this you don’t want it too tight, as long as it doesn’t gather up, just wrap it around, and then what you have is tie it again right here, and then put it in the sink with the hottest water you can get, soak it, leave it in there until the water gets cold, and then let it dry.

Then it’ll stay?


I can see that it’s much tighter. And you developed this on your own?

No, everybody does this.

Yes, but they didn’t show us, the whole thing. This is really neat. Then there are things like you have developed, like this microwave tray, and your shoelaces, and the microwave tray...

Then you have these special things, like your butter knife.

And I have this one thing, that the dog chewed on the handle and that’s the best one.

Would you show us any items you’re working on?

This is something that I um, this is a project I started a long time ago, but it’s one of those projects that just doesn’t get done, always gets put to the side. I have four or five of them, but I haven’t worked on it for a long long time.

So you’re just going to follow the pattern?

Follow the pattern, but I’ll probably have to rip it out if I do start working on what we have here is monk’s material that’s been washed and bleached, and then I sew it and give it the edging. I do all my own sewing, with my grandmother’s old sewing machine, so I do that and then figure out my design and then, put that on the graph...can you get that?

This is basically what I’ll work with (not the one for this piece) this is from a manta. This is the last one I made. All we have to do, this section of it, because there’s five of them on a manta, so we just do this first part, and figure out how many squares are in there, and figure out the design. If this was a dress, this would be this part right here.

So one you have that first section finished, you know what to do and where to go because it repeats?

Yes, this would be down here, or on the top on the manta. So that’s all I need. If it’s a real complicated design, then I’ll have to glue maybe four of these together, to make sure all the squares are lined up and I’ll graph it out. But if it’s simple, I’ll just use one sheet. This is basically how they all look. They should be under plastic, but they’re not.

I have this seam right here, and this is where I’m going to pt in what I call a ‘lock’ at the beginning and at the end, so it won’t come out. Some people, their work, they don’t lock their stuff in, they just start, stick it in and start, and they know somewhere the string is going to come out. So I’ll show you a lock here.

So I’m coming up, and I’m going in...and I go back into that one, so it grabs that piece of yarn...and then I’ll come up and down...and usually when I’m working I’ll have laps and all, you know, and this is the first row, so I’ll go two and four.....and this yarn shouldn’t be doing this...

It may be the yarn is wanting to unravel because...

So there’s the beginning, and then I’ll go through....and then back to the that’s the beginning, so now I can go ahead and start.

So you came back in the place where you went in.

The stitches can be either, if you want the fine work, you go across four and go back one, and then the next stitch which is a good stitch is go across six and back one. Once you get to the 8 its a little bit bigger stitch. And I know some people who go across 12, but I think that’s a little bit too long.

So I’m going to go....let’s go across eight. And come back one. So this hand is working, and this hand is also working. This one is pushing, is holding the thread and at the same time is pushing out the needle too. And sometimes it’s hard for students to understand, they’re turning it around and going back and forth, but once they get the hang of it, then it’s okay.

There’s a design coming down, so we’ll skip two.

And everything I’ve done, I’ll line up everything to make sure it’s going across 8 all the way across, so that will keep you...what I’ll do now, once everything’s in line, all I have to do is just lift up this back part and see where the last stitch is...

I don’t have to count

You don’t have to count every time...

....There’s another design coming up so, go one up. So this one’s working back here too, this finger’s working, pushing the needle where ever it has to go, to the right to the left, bring it back.

Jeanne you might want to go from here where you get a really wonderful view, where he’s moving the stitches over to see where he is..

so what I’m gonna do when I get to the end is come across three, go back three, and go back to the end....

I see

A lot of times people will go directly in, and then come out here, but it brings up a little thread, and it doesn’t look right to me.

And how did you learn this technique?

I just taught myself

That’s amazing

And this back part you can use for starting you....let’s say you have to do this part, you can do your beginnings and endings here.

And for this portion where you have your lock stitches, this will become black?

This will be covered with black or turquoise.

And then the students will be... “oh its all warping!” But when you iron it out, it will be flat.

But yours already looks wonderful. And I guess that’s experience, and knowing how to do things.

they get traumatized, let’s say their hands are dirty, they get scared you know, and I say you can always take it to the cleaners....

And then sometimes the needles too sometimes they’re too sharp, and you have to get the fine sandpaper and take it down. But I like the sharp ones. Even thought when I’m really working on a project, my hands will get full of them, and I’ll actually go through my....and it gets that little scab on there.

And this will usually be wrapped around my, I’ll just wear my sox and stretch it around here (foot) and stretch out the material.

So your lap is just about the right height


and you don’t use the hoops?

No I tried those before and it doesn’t work right. See I poked my finger there.

So sometimes do you get blood on your..

Yeah, when I know I’ve poked my finger I’ll blow on it and wait, because if you start back, they’ll be a stain on it.

The cats sure like this...I’ll joke with people and say, you might find a few cat hairs on here. But that’s part of them. When you look at all the old Navajo textiles, you’ll find hair and other things in them, and that’s just part of them.

That’s part of it because how can you put hours into a project and not put part of yourself in there? That’s just fabulous Shawn. Thanks so much for showing us.

Do you have another class?

I haven’t taught since about five years now. Yeah, that sort of burned me out, and not doing doing anything for my own self. Especially with the pottery too, that really burnt me out. I was helping them out so much, giving them so much of what I had, that when I got home I didn’t have anything left for myself. I was just drained.

This is going to be a sash, so this other side will be the same thing, and I’ll probably put tassels on the end.

Beautiful. Can we see some of your other things? Do you have a batch of needles, or do you have some that you like and use over and over again.

There’s one company that I like. I don’t really have a special one.


We’ll just hold them up.

Hold them in front of the fireplace, because of the window.

As you can see they’re all dirty.

You can tell they’ve been used, from people who have danced in them, there’s sweat and dirt and chili stains.

I made this as a kilt, dancing the Hopi buffalo, so I made two of these except for these designs, and basically otherwise they’re the same.

The back is gorgeous too.

So that’s what I look at, you’ve gotta look at the back, too. It could be okay on the front, but you’ve gotta look at the back, there could be yarn and thread coming out.

this is beautiful too, this little design.

This little braid, like a little....just one piece of yarn, this whole thing, and then the steps too. this one I just wrapped, I didn’t do the braiding or the crochet.

That’s beautiful. You are just a master.

This would be your traditional dress.

Did you make this too?

Yes. I made this for my sister. So it just fits her perfectly, you don’t have to gather it here, you just put it on.

Beautiful, butterfly, and the rain clouds. And another butterfly. This would fit me perfectly. Yeah, this would fit me perfectly too. and this was for Kelly?

Yes, but I’ll give it to her though.

I know Myra’s taller, it wouldn’t fit her, but it would fit Kelly.

This is the type of dress I made before Christmas, this last time, and it’s the same design but different colors, a little more contemporary with the orange.

The red and the orange together, and the X’s.

This would probably be the rainbow, and the prayer feather, and then the rain cloud. This is a lot more heavier, you can tell.

This one would fit me too.

That is beautiful, beautiful.

This one’s also for a lady for the buffalo dance, you can see this stain right here.

The design is different from the other one.

So there’s two of these, and two of those?

Yes, when I’m making them for the girls, I’ll make two of them, for the buffalo, two for a set.

Beautiful, Shawn.

You’re like my mom. “Just give it to me!”


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