If you stumbled upon a collection of Gloria Keys’s pink, purple, and turquoise imbued mecates in a Western shop, you probably wouldn’t describe them as “traditional.”
Yet few craftsmen can claim stronger roots in their trade than Keys, known to her customers as The Colorful Cowgirl. Keys is a fourth-generation mecate maker, and her family has been in the business for more than a century. In the 1800s, her great-grandmother Clara started spinning the vaquero-style horsehair ropes for her family on Oregon’s 5 Bar Homestead. The tradition was then passed down from mother to daughter, with each girl learning the trade before her 10th birthday.
Yet, for Keys, mecate making didn’t catch right away.
“At first, I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she admits. “I went to the city, went to college, held corporate jobs. Then finally I realized that just wasn’t for me.”
At age 30, Keys returned to her family’s ranches in Nevada and Oregon and started practicing the skill she’d learned as a child, but this time with her own twist. Instead of the subdued natural tones of traditional mecates, she began to spin her ropes in vibrant color.
“Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved color,” she says. “Growing up on the ranch, I would wear red Rockies and a bright shirt to match. Everyone started calling me ‘The Colorful Cowgirl,’ which is where my business name comes from today.”
Her mom and grandma weren’t keen at first, but now orders for Keys’s colorful creations—complete with rhinestone-embellished poppers—keep her busy all year long. And it’s easy to see why. Dying the all-natural mane-only horse hair adds yet another step to the already long and laborious process of making mecates by hand.
“First I have to dye it, then dry it, then do what’s called ‘picking’ it—kind of like carding wool,” Keys explains. “It fluffs it all up so I can spin it like a spider web. Next I spin between six and eight strings 72-feet long. Then we double it back to make four and twist that in.”
The spinning process requires an 80-foot space, and for full-time rancher Keys, that means working in the barn.
“We don’t have any heat or anything,” she says. “I can make them in cold weather, but if it gets below 30, forget it!”
Between the weather, ranch duties, and the five to eight hours it takes to make each mecate by hand, the turnaround time on an order sometimes surprises people.
“Our world has become a Walmart, made-in-China, get-it-right-now kind of place. I keep with the same tradition my great-grandma did—all by hand, no machines. So it takes a lot longer! For the people who understand—those who collect mecates or use them for their riding and their work—it’s totally worth the wait.”