I was reading a magazine a friend had given me a subscription to and I ran across a little blurb about an amazing man. The magazine was Performance Horse, and it essentially is composed of articles about various show disciplines and training methods. I never would have suspected that I would find a gem of information about a man who spun in a magazine such as this, but there it was.
The man's name was Robert Mills, and he made mecates. A mecate (muh caw tee or ma-carty) is a rope spun traditionally from the fiber taken from a horse's mane, and is used as reins for horseback riding, particularly cow work. The mecates teach the horse to respond to the reins very quickly, and so thus the article about a spinner in a horse magazine.
Robert Mills was also legally blind, and he was known in the business as Blind Bob. He purchased much of the equipment from Sam Chaplin and continued the business himself side by side with his wife Pauline. In the beginning he had some sight and most of his hearing, but he suffered from numerous brain tumors, and as his disease progressed, the resulting surgeries eventually left him completely blind as well as deaf.
Towards the end of his career, when he had lost all of his sight and hearing, Robert would wash the fiber, and Pauline would sort it into different shades. Then he would run it all through the picker and Pauline would spin it into bobbins of singles, to be used later. When they got an order, Pauline would sign the color combinations and requirements into his hand, and he would create the final rope according to those specifications. In a world of darkness, and silence this man continued to create beautiful examples of spinning expertise that most of us will never be able to match.
Sara Hagel learned to make mecates when she was just a 13 years old. Her father suggested she learn to make mecates instead of taking a job in town. Today she still makes beautiful mecates for the horse world, which can be viewed on her site . She is the owner of the previously mentioned rope machine built by the miner friends of Sam Chaplin. Sara told us that she wouldn't trade it for anything, despite it's appearance. She makes mecates along with other horse items, and we are very thankful for her help in bringing this story to you.
There are many artists keeping up the tradition of making the beautiful mecates. Doug Krause, purchased Blind Bob's business in 1995 and has been a top producer of mecates ever since. You can see a video here of him making a mecate, and how exact of a process it is.
One more interesting character I came across when researching mecates was a lovely lady named Frankie Dougal. Born in 1918, Frankie learned to make mecates at her mother's knee at the age of 9 years old. Today she still makes them, despite her difficulties in obtaining fiber. She also taught both of her daughters this traditional craft so that her daughters can take part in the family tradition of making mecates. You can read more about her here and here .
The rope is made by the same general techniques that we use everyday, and similar cords could be made with your spinning wheel, although some serious attention to detail is needed. Sara begins by spinning singles (twice and many as she wants plies). So for a 5 ply rope, she will need to spin at least 10 singles for the outer wrap of the rope. She also must spin a solidly plied core to make the rope nice and round. Once she has these spun with the traditional Z twist, they will all be put under precise tension and plied very tightly with an S twist. Now they are re-plied all together with the second Z twist around the core, which is also plied. It is extremely precise in nature, and requires quite a bit of technical skill, particularly without the specialized rope making equipment which keeps each strand under the exact same tension during plying, however some really nice results can be acheived at the humble spinning wheel which would be wonderful for all sorts of decorative trims, fringe, and purse handles.
Spinning is a very diverse and interesting craft, we have everything from delicate silk lace weight, to horsehair ropes to inspire us to do great things. And we have role models, like the late Sam Chaplin and Robert Mills, who despite difficulties, hardship and physical challenges rose to the title of Great.