La Lana Wools during a visit in 2006

La Lana Wools and Taos Valley Wool Mill
by Melanie Falick
Excerpted from America Knits by Melanie Falick (Artisan Books). Copyright 2005. (Originally published as Knitting in America.)

Please note: The images here are not Chris Hartlove's originals from the book, they were taken by Clara Parkes during a visit to La Lana in 2006.

This excerpt is republished on the occasion of La Lana Wools announcing it will close its doors February 29, 2012.

Luisa Gelenter laughs during a visit in 2006

Sitting in the back room of La Lana Wools—amid an assortment of unspun fleeces—Luisa Gelenter tells me that she was a free spirit when she came to Taos. She and her husband had been living in Mexico, on the verge of becoming expatriates, when a friend wrote in 1968 and said, "You can come back now. I found the place." Fiber enthusiasts everywhere should be grateful that Luisa took her friend's letter seriously and decided to give the then sleepy Southwestern town of alternative and creative living a try. In Taos, Luisa began to delve into natural dyeing, and it was here, in 1974, that she opened La Lana Wools, a colorist's paradise in the form of a shop and gallery in which she sells spun and unspun fiber, finished garments and other knit and woven objects, as well as natural dyestuffs.

a wall of La Lana sample garments

For Luisa, a native of New York City who studied sculpture in high school and originally planned to go to medical school, the fiber trail began in Bolivia. "Everyone was spinning all the time, whether they were scurrying over the Andes or selling potatoes," she remembers. "I was very attracted to it. I bought a spindle and sat down with the ladies at the market." By the time Luisa left South America and moved to Taos, she had a sizable stash of handspun alpaca ready to be dyed, but felt it would be sacrilegious to taint her all-natural yarn with chemical colorants. Recalling the luminous colors and soft glow of old Persian, Navajo, and Turkish textiles, Luisa began experimenting with dyes from the plants growing in her driveway, then ventured out into the nearby deserts and mountains. "In the beginning, there were a lot of disasters—blah beiges, weird yellows, disgusting greens. But here and there I would hit on something great like Navajo tea or snakeweed." Luisa now specializes in dyeing with plants native to the Southwest as well as the exotic dyes of antiquity: cochineal, indigo, madder, brazilwood, and logwood. "My feeling is that because the dyes are made out of organic materials you respond to them from your solar plexus, your heart chakra."

Inside La Lana

Today at La Lana Wools, which is housed in the former studio of Burt Phillips, an early Taos artist, Luisa's twenty-plus years of dyeing experience show in the luxurious skeins of yarn that line the adobe walls and fill baskets and display tables. They are also obvious in the handknit garments made with her fiber that are for sale there. Designer Judy Dercum, who sells her sweaters at La Lana Wools, compares Luisa's yarns to a landscape. "When you look at a landscape, it is never one color. It is a blending of colors, and your eye puts it all together, and that is what makes it beautiful and interesting." Lynne Vogel, a designer from Cannon Beach, Oregon, remembers discovering the store during a vacation in Taos many years ago. "The first thing I noticed was the silk basket and those gorgeous colors I had never seen before." Later on, while living in Taos, Lynne would visit La Lana every day "just to look at the yarns."

a wall of yarn at La Lana

Most days, Luisa's time is filled with managing the store and dyeing the fiber in her home-based studio as well as helping to run the Taos Valley Wool Mill, which she opened in 1991 with two partners. For hand-spinning, she hires women in New Mexico, Montana, Texas, and California, asking them to use the long-draw method, which requires giving the twist of the fiber a long angle and, according to Luisa, works best with her fibers because it maintains their loft, makes the yarn easier to handle, and helps the yarns to wear better. "The twist is powerful," Luisa says. "Fiber falls apart before it is spun. You put in this tiny little twist and you've got something." Spinning for Luisa does take some training, as her standards are high and at the same time idiosyncratic. She does not want yarn that looks like it was spun by a machine. "I like to keep the life in it," she explains, recalling a star pupil who learned to spin in record time but had to be taught "to lump it up, to let it breathe." She spun too perfectly.

Thickspun yarns close up

Always the free spirit as well as the philosopher, Luisa credits her lack of formal fiber education with some of her most interesting creations. Consider her Tailspun yarns, ropelike mohair yarns with dangling, silky curls meant to capture the special beauty of fleece as it appears on a goat's back, and Wild Thing, another rope-like yarn, this one with different-colored wool or mohair "flags" shooting out at every imaginable angle. "Because I was never trained, my imagination could do anything," she says. The same goes for colors. "Working with natural dyes is hard," she explains, "but the colors are so much more beautiful for the same boiling—and unpredictable." Interestingly, the unpredictability that Luisa values is the same unpredictability that keeps other fiber artists loyal to chemical dyes, with their inherent reproducibility. "If I were getting the same color every time I would have been out of this a long time ago," she admits. There are myriad factors that can affect the natural dyeing process, from the mineral content of the earth and water where the plant grew to the genetics of the particular plant to the weather on dyeing day. Luisa cites brazilwood as an example: depending on the conditions it endured in the rain forest, it can lean toward either pink or orange.

Forever Random blends

Not surprisingly, Luisa is especially proud of her Forever Random Blends (variegated wool-and-mohair yarns in which the placement of the color never repeats exactly). These yarns, she says, "talk and move in inexplicable ways." Though she does repeat color combinations—her yarns boast names like Zulu Prince, Faerie Queen, and Tzarina—no two skeins will ever be exactly alike. Luisa explains: "All the colors will be in the blend, but where they appear and how and what they're next to—this is serendipity. That's what makes it so enjoyable to spin and knit."

Luisa gazes from the balcony of her office above La Lana Wools

Luisa admits to having her secrets—where to find a certain plant, a special dyeing formula, exactly how she makes her Forever Random Blends—but she is also eager to share much of her knowledge and enthusiasm and from time to time offers dyeing classes, which she describes as "small and intense." Rather than sitting at a table with eye droppers and formulas, Luisa insists that her students get their hands dirty. "I want them in the pots, sweating, getting things right, getting things wrong, but making their own mistakes and not just watching me dance around." Luisa's advice to a student who wants to spin and dye and start a similar business: Follow your own path, follow what you love.

Excerpted from America Knits by Melanie Falick (Artisan Books). Copyright 2005.
Photographs taken by Clara Parkes during a visit to La Lana in 2006.

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