Navajo Blankets and Weavings
The Navajo Weaver
by Jay W. Sharp
Like the paintings, sculptures, fabrics and mosaics of art museums, the exquisite weavings of the Navajos – their blankets, rugs, saddle blankets, garments and tapestries – speak to the traditions and spirituality of a people.
Through the Navajos' textiles, you can follow the historical course of an adaptable and resourceful tribe of the Southwestern high desert. You can trace the impact of their interactions with neighboring Pueblos, Spanish colonists, Mexican settlers and American expansionists and traders. You can see an exhibition of the Navajo sense of artistry—a lyrical expression of beauty, symmetry and harmony. Indeed, in studying a Navajo weaving closely, you may think as much of a composition of classical music as a showpiece of the visual arts.
The Navajo Weaver
Navajo Mary McKibben, who began weaving at the age of six, said, "My mother would take out my small loom and set it up beside her large loom. I learned to weave sitting at her side... Weaving is a very spiritual thing...when I weave I think of my relatives and my old friends at school. My grandmother always used to say that your thoughts are woven into your rug... It's really nice to know some kind of artwork that gives you peace."
Before she even begins work at her loom, the strictly traditional Navajo weaver has to shear several sheep, using heavy, scissor-like hand shears, to gather sufficient wool. She has to wash the wool once or twice with a laboriously prepared yucca-root soap. After drying the wool, she (perhaps with the help of family and neighbors) separates it into small bunches called "rolags." She cards, or combs, the rolags to remove debris and to align the fibers. She spins the aligned fibers by hand, classically using three strands (instead of the easier-to-produce two strands) to form especially strong finished yarns. Finally, she "cooks" her yarns in various dyes to give them color. At last, she can begin her weaving.
A Navajo weaver works at a vertical loom mounted inside or perhaps nearby her hogan, her traditional home. Typically, her husband has constructed her loom from two horizontal beams lashed to two vertical beams, creating a rectangular-shaped frame. She uses several horizontal dowels to mount and stretch the warps (the weaving's parallel, evenly spaced vertical threads). She weaves two small diameter rods (the shed and heddle rods) through the warps, separating the threads to admit the wefts (the horizontal threads). She begins work at the bottom, weaving the wefts through the warps with a batten stick and her fingers. She uses the batten stick or a wooden comb to tamp the weft threads into a tight fit, so tight, in fact, that the finished textile will almost hold water. Finished with her weaving, she could quickly disassemble her loom so that it can be moved easily to a new location—a holdover from her people's restless past.
Several years ago, a traditional Navajo weaver demonstrating her craft at
a vertical loom in the lobby of a hotel in the Four Corners region told me that
she – like
all traditional Navajo weavers – visualized the entire design of a blanket
or rug in her mind before she began work. She used no study sketches, no conceptual
ideas, no layouts laid out on paper. She simply worked from an image fixed in
her head. She said that – in addition to the time she spent in preparing
her yarn – she would spend four to six weeks producing a weaving three
or four feet in width and five or six feet in length. With good luck, she could
sell a blanket or rug for maybe $1500.
From Then to Now
The Navajos – a deeply spiritual, Athapaskan-speaking people who drifted into the Four Corners region as hunting and gathering bands from the Northwest beginning some 10 or more centuries ago – believe that Spider Woman, one of their most important deities, taught their women to weave and that Spider Man, her husband, constructed her loom from two horizontal beams lashed to two vertical beams, creating the traditional rectangular-shaped frame.
"In acknowledgement of their debt to Spider Woman," said Raymond Friday Locke in his The Book of the Navajo, "…Navajo weavers always left a hole in the center of each blanket, like that of a spider's web, until the traders in the early part of this century refused to buy such blankets. Most Navajo weavers still acknowledge the debt by leaving a 'spirit outlet' in the design." This prevents "blanket sickness." As Locke said, "Since the weaver carries the pattern of the blanket in her head from beginning to ending, perhaps blanket sickness is more real than imagined."
According to most anthropologists – a much less spiritual people – the Navajos learned weaving from the Puebloan people. However they acquired the art, the Navajos made it uniquely their own. For a single example, among the Navajos, it is women who are the weavers. Among the Puebloans, it is men.
Originally, the Navajo women probably produced their weavings from cotton or perhaps even from the wild mountain goats' fine underhair. They switched to the Churro sheep's wool after that four-horned, variously hued animal arrived with Spanish colonists at the very end of the 16th century. They valued the churro's wool, said Navajo Glenna Manymules Bitsoi in the Internet site Sheep is Life, because it "is low in lanolin…it does not require valuable water for washing nor time-consuming carding. It can be shorn, hand cleaned, then spun into tightly twisted yarn that readily absorbs indigo and native vegetal dyes, from which the Navajo artists create weavings famous for their exceptional luster, fine texture, and durability."
With the passage of time, said Locke, Navajo women became more accomplished weavers than either Puebloan men or Spanish women, so much so that the Navajo women weavers frequently became coveted subjects of the colonists' slaving raids.
True to their cultural character, the Navajo women proved resourceful in creating colors for their weavings. They strengthened the natural blacks of some wools, said Locke, "by a dye composed of ocher burned in piñon gum and then boiled in a decoction of alder bark. Experiments with color led to the use of a dull red dye from the roots of native shrubs; a yellow obtained from a plant closely related to the goldenrod; a deep yellow and an orange from the root of the dock weed; and blue which was obtained by boiling sumac with a pulverized blue clay."
With a creative energy sustained across the centuries, the Navajo women have produced a body of art that – while always true to the medium and the tribal world view – has evolved in design, fabrication techniques and materials.
In the beginning – in the mid-17th century, just when they adopted the vertical loom – the Navajo weavers produced blankets with simple weft-stripe patterns, with varying widths and visual rhythms, according to Sandra Shepherd and Ron Johnson in "An Essay from Navajo Blankets from the Berlant Collection." In 1680, when the Puebloan peoples drove the Spanish colonists from their lands, the Navajo weavers, deprived of the wool of the Churro sheep, suffered a withering of their craft. Late in the century, however, when the Spanish returned, the weavers, afforded once again with the wool of the Churro, moved into new creative territory, beyond the weft stripes. They now produced blankets with designs comprising "stepped triangles and diamonds, serrated patterns, and colorful stripes," said Lee and Eric Anderson in "A History of Navajo Weaving," American Indian Art Internet site. While they still used their own yarns with natural dyes, they now turned to new threads, which they – with infinite patience – unraveled from European fabrics acquired through the Spanish. The weavers especially prized the bright red threads they drew from the English flannel that the Spanish called "Bayeta," which was colored by a dye extracted from the cochineal beetle, an insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus. Combining their homespun yarns with the European threads, the weavers "developed a beautiful variety of colors and styles," said the Andersons. Their work, through the 18th century, set a new standard in the weaver's art, and the Navajo blanket became a cherished trade item, both among neighboring tribes as well as the Spanish and even the Europeans.
In the 19th century – marked Mexico's successful revolt from Spain, the
United States' conquest of the Southwest, America's War Between the States, the
tragedy of the Indian Wars, and the Navajos' disastrous incarceration at northeastern
New Mexico's Fort Sumner – the weavers somehow found the will to fabricate
soft, lightweight and tightly woven blankets "made for wearing and designed
for warmth," said the Andersons. Most famously, in the second half of the
century, the weavers created the styles known as "Chief Blankets" and "Eye
At first, they made Chief Blankets with simple and variously colored horizontal bands. From about 1860 to 1875, they made the blankets with different colored horizontal bands punctuated with shorter bands. In the last 25 years of the century, they made the Chief Blankets with elaborate combinations of bands and triangles and diamond shapes, incorporating a rainbow of colors. The Chief Blankets "were worn by the 'chiefs' of other tribes," said Locke, "because it was said that they were the only ones who could afford to obtain them."
As the 19th century drew to a close, the Navajo weavers began to produce the Eye Dazzler blankets, distinguished by newly available, vibrant colors and by stunningly intricate designs. They capitalized on new chemical dyes produced in United States' factories and from vibrant four-strand yarns machine-spun in Germantown, Pennsylvania, mills. They wove the colors into an array of geometric shapes, including, for instance, rectangles, diamonds, triangles, serrated edges and crosses, nearly always with a finely tuned sense of balance and harmony. "Dismissed by rug traders as too garish for commercial sales," according to the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum Internet site, the "eye-dazzler blankets [nevertheless] were widely accepted and worn by the Navajos."
Near the end of the 19th century, the Navajo weavers confronted a new phenomenon—overwhelming competition, from companies like Pendleton and Hudsons Bay, who could make good colorful blankets at a much lower cost. Resourceful and adaptable as always, the Navajo weavers – capitalizing on the marketing knowhow of traders like Lorenzo Hubble of the Ganado Trading Post in northeastern Arizona and J. B. Moore of the Crystal Trading Post of northwestern New Mexico – turned to the business of making rugs.
After a long struggle, the weavers have redefined their craft and their markets, developing rugs with designs that may reflect the influences, not only of their people, but also of their nearby trading posts or communities or of more universal design concepts. They gave rise to an evolutionary process that continues to this day, sometimes incorporating even pictorial themes such as deities, seasonal events, reservation scenes, wildlife and patriotic motifs.
At the Two Grey Hills and Toadlena trading posts in northwestern New Mexico, the weavers, according to the Bair's Indian Trading Company Internet site, developed what has become a famous style of rugs typically "woven of natural, undyed, handspun wool in designs of white, black, and brown… The yarn in Two Grey Hills weavings is generally finer and the resulting design is generally crisper."
Near the Wide Ruins Trading Post (destroyed by a fire in 1986) in northeastern Arizona, the weavers produced finely woven rugs of complex designs and somber pastel earth tones.
At Chinle, the Navajo community at the mouth of northeastern Arizona's spectacular Canyon de Chelly (and the home of Spider Woman), the weavers gave birth to rugs with borderless designs incorporating bands of squash blossoms, chevrons and diamonds. "Colors are usually pastel or earth-tones in conjunction with white, natural gray, golds, and greens," said Bair's, "but they can also be bright colors."
Near the Crystal Trading Post, the weavers produced "storm pattern" rugs, which famed trader J. B. Moore, in his catalogues, said incorporated "legendary designs embodying a portion of the Navajo mythology." Bair's said, "…the design has remained a very popular one and weavers attribute meanings to the various design elements inherent to this pattern."
At the Ganado Trading Post, the weavers, working with Lorenzo Hubble, developed what is probably the best known of contemporary Navajo rugs. The weavings always featured a red background, said Bair's, and "A central design element such as a single or double terraced diamond or a cross is generally always present. Terraced triangles, zigzags, and other geometric shapes occupy each corner. A black or dark outer border is usually present and is often joined with a white or light colored inner border."
In communities across the reservation and even among families outside the reservation, Navajo weavers, more committed to more universal design concepts that to a specific location, have created a broad diversity of weaving, patterns and colors in their rugs.
Across the centuries, the Navajo weavers have left us with an unparalleled legacy in the fabric arts.
Collecting Navajo Weavings
If you set out to buy a single Navajo weaving or collect Navajo weavings – remembering that every single one is unique – you will have embarked on a journey of adventure and discovery.
In the Southwest, you can buy the weavings, not only from retail stores, but also from remote trading posts, reservation auctions, estate sales, fiestas and markets, and even reservation families.
You will find it an enriching experience to shop at trading posts such as Hubble's old Ganado Trading Post, a National Historic Site south of Canyon de Chelly; Tobe Turpen's Trading Post, an early 20th century establishment now on second street in Gallup, New Mexico; or the 1870's-era Hogback Trading Post 15 miles west of Farmington, New Mexico.
You may find it exceptionally interesting to consider the weavings at the rug auctions on the third Friday of each month at the gymnasium of the elementary school in Crownpoint, a small Navajo community perhaps 75 miles south of Farmington. There, you often find a chance to meet the weaver of your purchase and explore the history of her work.
You can evaluate Navajo textiles based on criteria such as the authenticity of the cultural representation, the antiquity and history of the work, the use of traditional weaving techniques, the harmony and balance in design, the color consistency of the yarns, the size of the finished piece, the tightness of the weave (perhaps 60 to 80 wefts per inch), and the reputation of the weaver. If you look closely at a rug's texture, for example, you can distinguish between homespun yarn, which has irregularities in the diameter, and commercial yarn, which has uniformity in diameter. If you sniff a rug, you may be able to smell the lanolin from sheep shorn by the weaver. You will not, of course, smell lanolin in commercial yarns.
Expect to pay anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars for a typical contemporary Navajo rug, with the Two Grey Hills examples often commanding the highest prices. You may have to pay $10,000 to $20,000 for rugs from early 20th century – or, the early trading post era – according to Missy Sullivan, "Navajo Textiles: The Woven Spirit," American Heritage Internet site. You might find that outstanding examples of the Eye Dazzler blankets range in price from $60,000 to $100,000 and the best and rarest of the Chief Blankets range upwards of several hundred thousand dollars. Jerry Becker, a consultant referenced by Sullivan, thinks that a Chief Blanket style known as a red bayeta poncho serape, with only some 30 good known examples remaining, may someday command a million dollars.
As Sullivan mentions, you can see priceless Navajo masterpiece weavings in various museums, including, for instance, the Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado; the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; the Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff, Arizona; and the School of American Research and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can learn about Navajo weaving in a large array of Internet sites and books.
If you look closely, you will feel the lyrical sense of beauty, symmetry and harmony produced on the Navajo women's vertical looms—the traditions and spirituality of a people.
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