HOW NAVAJO WOMEN CAME TO BE WEAVERS:
While Navajo mythology has it that Spider Woman taught the woman how to weave and Spiderman taught the men how to build a loom there are also historical accounts leading to this vocation.
The Navajos (Ta’a’ Dine’, the people as they call themselves) were a hunter gatherer tribe that moved south and settled in today’s area of Arizona and became farmers, weaving was not one of their skills.
The Spanish invasion of the region was also the catalyst for Navajo weaving. The introduction of Churro sheep provided an additional food source and the means to harvest wool. After the Pueblo rebelled against the Spanish they feared reprisal and sought sanctuary in Navajo lands for decades. Some eventually intermarried. Pueblo men were the traditional weavers, they taught their Navajo wives how to weave and the woman have carried on the tradition ever since.
By 1812 the economy of the Navajo was dominated by the production of blankets which were traded to the Cheyenne, Sioux, Comanche and others.
THE MAKING of a BLANKET
Sheep are raised and sheared.
Wool is cleaned without removing the natural lanolin which gives the rug its long life. A native soap of yucca root extract is used to wash and then the wool is fluffed and dried in the sun.
Carding Spinning Dying Vertical Loom
Carding: wool is straightened using two wooden paddles with wire teeth and combing it until it is laying in the same direction. This is by far the hardest chore.
Spinning: is all done by hand using a simple devise; a stick of 20 inches with a disk.
Dyeing: of the wool is with natural vegetables dyes.
Weaving: on a vertical loom is usually a basket weave type; the weft (horizontal thread) is pounded down with wooden combs.
Producing a high quality Navajo blanket is extremely labor intensive.
A labor estimates from 1970’s to create a 3x5 foot vegetal dyed rug was 400 hours from shearing through weaving.
The classic period is 1850 to 1870.
Blankets adorned with stripes were woven border to border.
Indigo dye and red bayeta cloth from Europe which the Navajo unraveled and re-spun to add the rich blue color and scarlet red to the muted tones of natural white, brown and black wool.
Stripe pattern remained the norm but gradually a Mexican like stair stepped diamond was adopted. Geometric designs were added to the edges, then diamonds and zigzags enlarged.
Transitional Period 1870 to 1900, decline of weaving
The forced resettlement of the Navajo through Colonel Kit Carson “scorched earth policy” to Fort Summer New Mexico and then their eventual return to a devastated land with depleted sheep livestock caused the Navajo to struggle for survival.
Trading Posts came to the reservation in 1870’s, the railroad in 1880’s and by then weavers were under pressure to cater to preconceptions white tourists held of Indian design. Weavings were covered with swastika, arrows and superstitious signs.
Commercial yarns called Germantown (from the textile center in Pennsylvania) became available dyed in a rainbow of colors and ready to weave tempted weavers into shortcuts and wild experiments.
While Germantown yarn was expensive aniline dye was cheap.
Aniline dyes came in packets and were simple to use and available in many colors and exactly and exactly what white people wanted in authentic Navajo rugs, lots of bright color. There was a rush toward quickly woven items for decorating white homes. A common practice for traders was to purchase rugs by weight with little regard for design or technique. Among early champions to return to quality work was Lorenzo Hubbell who established at trading post at Ganado
In the 1920’s interest in vegetal dyes was renewed. Many new formulas were perfected by Navajo experimenters using ingredients of nature. Navajo textile art fell into hard times again in the 1950’s when staple wool became scarce.
If it had not been for commercially prepared wool, the probability is that Navajo weaving would be a lost art today.
Today much raw material continues to be shorn from Navajo animals.
Yet many weavers find the abundance of pre-spun commercial yarn irresistible. Buying manufactured yarn bypasses the hard work of shearing, cleaning, dying, carding and spinning.
EXAMPLES OF REGIONAL RUGS:
Navajo rug types and designs began to be increasingly identified by geographic origin as described below and others.
Genado, Crystal, Two-Grey-Hills, Chinle, Teec-Nos-Pos, Gallup-Throw
Traditional weaves used natural tones; white, gray and black with added bayeta which also became known as “Ganado Red”.
In design the serrate or stepped diamond came to dominate Ganado style contained within borders. The Ganado type often has a plain border of black or red plus an inner border bearing a geometric repetition. Crosses, frets, triangles, zigzags, streaks and chevrons are typical.
Design resembles Persian rug patterns allegedly influenced by a sample linoleum pattern available at a trading post. Strong borders, plain or fancy, around mostly light colored grounds. A strong central diamond extended into busy doodle like designs most characteristically terminating in angular hooks resembling the letter “G”. The finest Crystal weave in 1911 of about 20 square feet (4 x 5) weighing 7 pounds was priced at $20, today a rare Crystal would be appraised at $10,000 to $30,000.
Today’s Crystal weaves are radically different. No borders, designs are edge to edge, bands of earth colors. There may be rusty red, chocolate, natural gray, milky green and pastel vegetal pink. Within some bands are simple geometric repeated designs such as flat triangles, rhomboids, arrows, and stars. The yarn is mostly homespun.
Two Grey Hills:
These are the most refined and expensive textiles of Navajoland made of native wool. Colors are white, black, brown, tan and gray. Traditionally the outer border is dark in a plain band. Inside this border is a second border of light ground broken up with repeated geometric symbols; frets, squares, terraced chevrons, zigzags. Third and fourth borders may mirror these themes.
Weave of soft pastel colors with borderless designs and bands reaching from edge to edge. The weft is relatively coarse and during weaving the weft threads are not packed down hard. The result is a thick textured rug.
Teec Nos Pos:
The border is wide and busily decorated with repeated geometries. Centers can be flamboyant with interlocking diamonds. Amid hooked and forked zigzag lines are scattered stylized feathers and arrows. The trademark of a Teec Nos Pos weave is the outlining of each design element with a contrasting color.
Shape defines the primary weaving. Long and narrow styles have always been nicknamed a “throw”.
Many “throws” are coarsely woven on commercial cotton warps of bright commercial yarns in simple designs.
They make chair backs and tablecloths and are relatively inexpensive. Better throws in standard 1 ½ x 3 feet can be starkly handsome in black, white, gray and red in balanced geometric patterns or abstract pictorials such as corn stalks and ceremonial figures.
Spirit Rugs: Yeis Yeibichai
Shiprock, a volcanic neck rises 1,400 feet above the surrounding plain in the north eastern corner of the reservation. The Navajo call it Winged Rock on which the gods swept ancestral Navajos into the sky out of reach of enemies. In such a land one would expect spirits “yeis” to invade Navajo weaving. “yeis” are the supernatural beings who communicate between Navajos and their gods.
In weavings there are from three to six yei figures, tall slender in a stiff upright posture on a white or light colored ground with figures in bright bold hues. The first yeis were woven in tribal apposition, because the figures are taken directly from sandpaintings crucial to sacred ceremonials. But since no religious significance was attached to the rugs themselves opposition disappeared.
Another style is the called the “yeibichai”
Whereas a yei is a deity and a yei rug depicts the spirits themselves. Navajo dancers in certain rites personify these spirits in the yeibichai dance.
The “Spirit Trail”on weavings.
A thin line in the upper right hand corner of a weave, most obvious are the lines that penetrate the border to the edge of the rug. To most weavers the line is a gesture that allows a pathway so that a weaver’s “spirit, mind, energies and design” will not be trapped within the completed rug. In a sense the pathway line says “May the next weaving be even better”.
Navajo tapestries are on the threshold of widespread public acceptance for what it is; an art form. It is pointless to seek precise standards in assessing Navajo weaves. The charm and challenge of the art form is its individualism. When you touch a Navajo rug you can feel the weaver in it. It came out of her heart and imagination. Navajo can appreciate in the opinion of some dealers about 20 percent per year.
FAKES and FRAUDS:
Machine made imported rugs are at times offered to unsuspecting customers as being of Navajo origin.
Mexican textiles sold as genuine Navajo products in tourist stores, big 1970’s problem.
False advertisements in papers and magazines, example:
“Navajo, ….American Indian pattern rug woven of dense, natural yarn in earth tone accents on ivory background of brick reds and gold …. 4 x 6 feet, $39.95” Turns out this rug was made in Belgium.
Reviews from excellent books:
Navajo Rugs by Don Dedera
Navajo Weavings by Kent McManis & Robert Jeffries
The Art of Navajo Weavings by Steve Getzwiller
Some of these books can be purchased through