A History of Navajo Weaving

An article by  by Lee & Eric Anderson

In the Beginning

It has often been said “the land was good for nothing else so we gave it to the Indians.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The original Navajo, the T’aa dine’, chose this very area some six to seven centuries ago. This nomadic people arrived and apparently lived in harmony with the existing Anasazi until the latter’s disappearance or assimilation.

Undoubtedly, the T’aa dine’ learned much from their neighbors, the Pueblo Indians, including the skill of weaving with domestic cotton and native grasses. They necessarily modified their traditional, nomadic way of life.

In the 16th century, the Spanish began exploring this area. Shortly thereafter, Spanish rule and the Catholic Church dominated the Southwest. The traditional arts of the pueblo dwellers and the Navajo were severely curtailed. In fact, some scholars refer to the ensuing two-and-a-half centuries as the “Regressive Period” of pueblo arts and crafts. The Navajo, unwilling to be subjected to outside domination, simply reverted to their original, nomadic way of life.

They retreated deep into the high deserts and canyons. From these strong points, they began raiding Spanish and Pueblo livestock.

By this time the Navajo were already accomplished weavers, having learned this skill from the Pueblo Indians. It was a simple transition to start weaving with the wool of the purloined Spanish sheep instead of cotton, like the Pueblos. The belt loom and, later, small vertical looms were transportable, lending themselves to this mobile existence. Naturally, this caused changes in the Navajo’s weaving styles. For approximately 300 years, the Navajo pursued this nomadic way of life and hence developed the unique culture we know and respect today.

Although nomads and raiders, the Navajo had homes — areas devoted to agriculture and permanence — but these homes were few and far removed from civilization. The Navajo moved continuously, raiding constantly. They were feared by the local Pueblo Indians, the Spanish, and the Americans alike; they were, as Don Dedera writes, indeed, the “lords of the desert.” Their pride was intense and it remains so today. Their legends, religion, and language have been, and still are, passed from generation to generation. All of this is expressed, wonderfully, in their weaving. No other cultural group in the world weaves as the Navajo weaves. The finished work is a fine expression of the pride and the creation of beauty of these people.

The Last 200 Years

The difficulties of Navajo were not limited to just the Spanish or their old neighbors, the Pueblo tribes. The Navajo’s lifestyle also conflicted with the rapidly expanding population of the U.S. The problems created by this new economic, social, and cultural interaction are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is important to note how the conflict ended in 1863. The ensuing changes dramatically affected the Navajo’s weaving art.

The U.S. Cavalry appointed Colonel Kit Carson, the famous mountain man, explorer, scout, and guide, to the task of effectively eliminating the “Navajo threat.” He adopted General Sherman’s “scorched earth” technique and effectively destroyed the Navajo’s livelihood. Leading the U.S. Cavalry through the area, he ravaged crops and homes, killed sheep and horses, and finally destroyed the orchards of peach trees in the rugged Canyon de Chelly. This last act insured the starvation of the Navajo, who finally surrendered.

At this time, the tribe numbered approximately 14,000 to 15,000 strong. Approximately one half, or 8,000 people, were gathered and forced to travel 350 miles to Ft. Sumner, New Mexico. Here the government tried to change their way of life to an agricultural style.

The project was a failure. The land and the Navajo were simply not suited to agriculture. The local people, Americans, Mexicans, and other Indians, including Apache and Comanche, were most inhospitable. The Navajo, defenseless, were preyed upon by all. In a period of 4 years, nearly one fourth of the population died. The high cost to the federal government for maintaining these people in food, lodging, and clothing was politically and economically unacceptable, especially since the program was obviously not working. A new program was needed.

Shortly, Lt. General William Sherman and the Navajo leader, Barboncito, agreed to a new treaty. The Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. It had to be a bleak and discouraging return. All was in ruins — except the land. Never hospitable, it seemed to welcome them home. With the government issue of sheep in 1869, the Navajo tribe began reemerging.

It was a slow and painful rebirth and growth fraught with many difficulties. Overgrazing and lack of rain caused most of the difficulties. Stock reductions were necessary. Food and jobs were scarce. Disease was a serious threat. Still, their numbers increased markedly, from approximately 12,000 in 1869 to approximately 35,000 in the early 1930s.

According to Don Dedera, it was not until World War II that the Navajo’s lot seemed to improve significantly, if only temporarily. About 3,600 Navajos were in the military and another 15,000 in the defense industry. After the war, however, jobs dropped to about 600 while the population soared to 60,000. The reservation boasted only 460 hospital beds and 95 miles of paved road. Only 6,000 of 20,000 school age-children actually attended school.

Today conditions are much improved but still fall well below the standards that most Americans enjoy. Although the reservation paved highways traverse much of the Reservation, lateral roads are frequently impassable in wet and winter months. Often the Arizona Air National Guard and other state agencies are called upon to airlift food and other supplies to cut-off families. Hay drops are not uncommon. Helicopter evacuation of the sick is often necessary.

However, industry is growing. The Peabody Coal Company is a major employer. Timber, oil, minerals, and other natural resources are being developed, and through recent legislation, the Navajo people are realizing greater benefits from their land than ever before. Conditions are still far from ideal, however.

The schools are excellent. However, because of the size of the reservation and the greatly scattered population, long-distance day and boarding schools are required. Today, school enrollment includes over one half of the population. Literacy is still well below the national average, and most children do not continue beyond the 8th grade. However, compared to conditions two generations ago, progress is not only evident but also impressive. Although unemployment is often quoted at approximately 50 percent, it is still better than 600 jobs for a population of 60,000 at the end of World War II. Families then used the buckboard and two horses for transportation; today that sight is a rarity, and a pickup truck the norm.

Progress and improvement in living conditions is, in truth, rapid. But for those experiencing the hardships of Reservation living, that progress is simply not evident or painfully slow.

Throughout this period of history, one thing has remained constant — the unique and beautiful Navajo weaving. These hardy people adopted weaving techniques from their Pueblo neighbors. From then on, the development of style, pattern, and quality was uniquely theirs. (The influence of the traders will be discussed shortly.) You can see, even in the earliest of blankets, excellence of design and uniformity. In remarking on the tightness of the weave, early authors often exclaimed that the blankets “would hold water.” Today’s fine, tight tapestries, beautiful rugs, and wall hangings are an extension of this early period. Many variations, changes, and styles have come and gone. The next section details how these styles developed chronologically. It is not exhaustive; for much greater detail, consult some of the excellent references listed at the end of this paper.

Early Weaving or Early Classic Period (to 1804)

The Navajo almost certainly began weaving shortly after arriving in the Four Corners area in the homeland of the Anasazi. Undoubtedly, the “belt loom” was the original loom adopted from their Pueblo dwelling neighbors. The year 1650 is generally accepted as when the Navajo’s shifted to the vertical or upright loom. The patterns of these early works were influenced by the Spanish, the Pueblos, and the Navajo’s own ideas of beauty.

Following the Pueblo revolt of 1680, the Spanish influence waned for a few years. Once the Spanish returned, the Navajo again had access, through trade and raiding, to Churro sheep. Their weaving, once again, blossomed with even more variation of design. Navajo weaving now included designs from baskets, stepped triangles and diamonds, serrated patterns, and colorful stripes. By the beginning of the 19th century, Navajo weaving was in demand, mostly by other Indians — Navajo, as well as Utes and Cheyennes. They also traded with the Spanish in New Mexico and, through them, to Mexico and Europe. It is unfortunate that almost no examples of this period of weaving exist today.

Early Navajo weavers used wool, dyed with native, natural dyes, as well as a rewoven thread from Bayeta (bright red wool of flannel consistency from England). They unraveled other blankets and clothing and, by adding these materials to their own homespun wool, developed a beautiful variety of colors and styles.

The best-known example, reputedly the earliest Navajo weaving still in existence, is the “Massacre Cave Blanket” from Canyon de Chelly. This all-wool balnket, frequently dated at 1804, was recovered from the ruins of the massacre. It features all-natural dyes, medium and dark brown and beige on white. This blanket is regarded as marking the end of the Early Weaving or Early Classic period; it is often cited as marking the beginning of the Classic Period.

Classic Period (1804–1880)

There are few examples of Navajo weaving between 1804 and 1850, but the last 30 years of this period are well represented. Bayeta had been introduced earlier. This famous, cochineal, red dye from Mexico was popular and available, but Navajos rarely used it on homespun weavings during this period because of its expense. They did, however, use cochineal by unraveling other Mexican weavings. Saxony yarn from Europe was also popular during this period.

In the earlier portion of the period, most designs featured alternating stripes. In the later period, they combined stripes and diamonds, triangles, and zigzag lines. Occasionally, designs featured serrated, diagonal lines within a given stripe.

The Classic Period is known for blankets that were made for wearing and designed for warmth. They are soft, tight, and not heavy. Usually the weft count (number of weft threads in an inch) would exceed 40; 60 was not unusual. Often these blankets, known as “Chief’s Blankets,” were given as gifts to other Indian leaders and to American military and political authorities. Blankets were also a trade item, affordable only to the well-to-do.

It is in this context, that the latter phase of the Classic Period and the subsequent Eye Dazzler Period are further time-defined. Remember that designs from this era were used well into the 20th century. As such, design alone cannot be used to date a blanket or rug. (The designs described below are the norm; certainly, others existed.)

Phase I: Chief’s Blanket, Classic Period (from1850–1865). The designs usually include three red- and indigo-patterned stripes between broad black and white stripes. Colors vary.

Phase II: Chief’s Blanket, Classic Period (1860–1875). This represents a transition from the simple Phase I to the more elaborate Phase III. Usually the red and blue (or other color) stripes are interrupted along their length by shorter, colored bands — again, three is the most common number. These blankets have the dominant wide, alternating, black and white bands.

Phase III: Chief’s Blanket Classic Period (1875–1900). Although this pattern retains the wide black and white bands, it also features stepped triangles on the corners, sides, and ends as well as a stepped diamond in the center. Reds and blues are most common; however, a plethora of other colors are often encountered — purples, oranges, and many shades of brown. The Phase III pattern was so popular that weavers continued to use it well after the demise of the wearing blanket, simply carrying it over into rug patterns.

Heavier pieces, more suitable for rugs, probably date from 1890 to the present. Rugs of this later period, regardless of pattern, are rarely considered examples of the Classic Period. Nevertheless, they are highly collectible pieces that show the influence and carryover of design as well as the way the economy dictated techniques.

Please note that these dates are generalizations only. Some Phase I patterns were woven in the late 1890s for example. The type of wool is a better dating tool.

Eye Dazzler Period (1880–1900)

The influx of Germantown three- and four-ply yarn entered the Navajo weaving story in the 1880s. Its brilliant colors, and the Navajo weavers’ thirst for this color, added style to the sedate “Chief’s Patterns.” Germantown yarn gave birth to the “Eye Dazzler.” Brilliant reds, greens, yellows, blues, and more found their way into blankets and wall hangings.

At this same time, aniline dyes were stocked by the trading posts. These chemical dyes gave the weaver a greater variety of colors and were far easier to use.

Until 1890, most weavers created wearing blankets. However, once the Pendleton Woolen Mills introduced their product, this need ended. The Pendleton (still used today) was lighter, warmer, every bit as colorful, and much less expensive. Navajo weaving declined. It probably would have died except that non-Indian people started using Navajo blankets as floor coverings, bedspreads, and wall hangings. This new demand, coupled with pattern changes and a heavier style of weaving (largely instituted by the reservation traders), undoubtedly saved the craft.

The transition was not immediate. Germantown weavings proliferated well into the 20th century, with a definite eye to balance the pattern. This more expensive yarn was only used by the better weavers.

Early Rug Period (Late 1800s–1920)

The transition from blankets to rugs actually began in the 1880s. Although most Navajo weaving of that period was for wearing blankets, a new market for rugs and tapestries was growing. The salvation of weaving and its huge growth at the turn of the century is largely attributed to two men — Lorenzo Hubble of the Ganado Trading Post and J.B. Moore of the Crystal Trading Post. Both men envisioned a market for Navajo weaving, both had the foresight to encourage quality, and both were instrumental in developing basic designs that would complement the eastern U.S. fashion dictates of the period.

The most-often encountered rug in the late 1800s and early 1900s was the Oriental rug. It was found that the motifs of these rugs, especially the Caucasus, were well suited to the Navajo weaver’s idea of balance and pattern. Moore and Hubble incorporated these patterns. Artists Burbank and Little were commissioned by Hubble to paint rug patterns as samples. Hubble used crosses, stripes, geometry, and balanced patterns of the Oriental against a bright red aniline. He also incorporated a designed, black border.

Moore followed Hubble’s example. He even published mail-order catalogs in 1903 and 1911 for use in the eastern U.S. He, too, incorporated classic designs but preferred natural hues, with only an accent of brighter colors, usually red. Many of Moore’s hooks, angles, etc., set his patterns apart from Hubble’s geometry. Both proved very popular.

Both men had their disciples who, as the need for trading posts expanded, carried and modified these basic patterns with them as they established new posts. Of course, the local Navajo modified these patterns with their own ideas. Certain patterns became associated with specific trading posts, giving rise to the first general collector field for Navajo weaving — the regionally or geographically identified rug.

Rug popularity received a blow in the late 19th century, when the U.S. government, hoping to increase the meat production in the Navajo tribe, introduced the French Rambouillet sheep. These sheep did what they were supposed to, but their wool was too short and oily for good-quality weaving. Rugs produced from this wool were coarse, heavy, and they appeared dirty because of the oil. Rugs went downhill. The traders, to stimulate production, purchased rugs by the pound ($.30 to $1). Weavers would now produce rugs as rapidly as possible, leaving the wool as oily as possible, evening pounding in dirt to increase their weight.

The rug industry was in serious trouble at this time. This is not to say that excellent rugs were not produced during and prior to this period; they were. Processed wool from the east, such as the Germantown yarn, was used by the better weavers, who produced outstanding patterns and quality. Prices for these pieces were at a premium, while prices for “pound weavings” were quite low.

Rug Revival Period (1920–1940)

A combination of factors helped revive the Navajo weaving industry: continued demand for a good quality rug and the contribution of several farsighted people.

Several people in different areas began experimenting with vegetable dyes and vegetable-toned chemical dyes. The success of Leon McSparron and Mary Wheelright at Chinle gave not only new, softer, pastel hues to the rugs but also a new design with patterns set in bands on a borderless rug. Mrs. William Lippincott of Wide Ruins did the same with similarly outstanding results. The open, unbordered styles also pleased the Navajo weavers.

The DuPont Chemical Company experimented with developing a wider range of colors. This effort was extended even further by the Diamond Dye Company, which introduced a series of dyes called “Old Navajo.” Now the weaver had, in one package, both the mordant and the colorant. This process was faster and less dangerous than the old mixing with acids, and it produced more uniform results.

In 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Navajo Sheep Breeding Laboratory at Ft. Wingate (near Gallup, New Mexico). Here, they developed a breed of sheep combining the high mutton-producing qualities of the Rambouillet with the better wool qualities of other breeds. The lovely, long, staple wool of the 19th century Churro sheep was, however, a thing of the past.

In addition to these developments, the high standards demanded by many traders and the public nearly eliminated the low-grade weaving associated with the “pound rug.”

Regional Style Rugs (1940–Present)

This period of weaving is characterized by specific patterns, colors, or motifs that are largely geographically oriented. Earlier, we note the strong influences of four trading centers: Lorenzo Hubble (Ganado Trading Post), J.B. Moore (Crystal Trading Post), Leon McSparron (Chinle Trading Post), and Mr. and Mrs. William Lippincott (Wide Ruins Trading Post). Other areas developed specific styles that further identified their product. Many were branches of these four trading centers; some were unique. Not all lasted from 1940 to the present, but many did, and others were created. This clearly different styling gave rise to the first geographical rug collector’s criteria, much like a mint mark for a coin collector. It also allowed collectors to predate their rugs with those of earlier periods leading to their current rug type.

As you may imagine, one regional style often blends with another. Also, a weaver living in one area can surely create a rug with a design native to another area or blended with her own. This does not affect the rug’s value. The rug is identified by its regional style, not by the location of the weaver. One of the largest and most beautiful “Two Grey Hills” rugs ever created was woven by a Navajo living in Morenci, Arizona — over 200 miles south of the Reservation.

Today, according to one reference, only about 25 percent of all rugs tend to be regional in identification; 40 percent are classified as “General” (See table below). Still, any rug made after 1940 can be classified as “Regional Style” because this period signified the regional development of pattern and color that created the collector field we know today. Also, the blending of the “regional” patterns and colors produced some extremely valuable “general” patterns of today.

There are fewer weavers today, as a percentage of the Navajo population, than 90 years ago; tomorrow there will be even fewer than today. The reason, of course, is economics. Although the prices of rugs have increased enormously, the amount of time involved in weaving one still makes the art much less than cost-effective. This is not true for the well known, award winning, weavers that dot the reservation. For them, the art is rewarding and, for those aspiring to greatness, these rewards are very attainable. For this reason, Navajo weaving is not a dying art; rather, it is becoming a very selective, highly competitive one.

So how long does it take to make a Navajo rug? Quoting from Gilbert S. Maxwell, author of Navajo Rugs, Past, Present and Future,

“A dealer friend of mine once placed an expert Navajo weaver on his payroll for $1 an hour. For her, he bought handspun vegetable dye yarns. He told the woman to do two pieces of weaving: a better than average, twill weave, double saddle blanket (30 x 60 inches), and a 3 x 5 foot quality rug. The saddle blanket was completed in 140 hours and the rug in 238 hours! And this I would remind you was straight weaving time — not spare time.”

“If this weaver had shorn, washed, carded, spun and dyed her own wool, my friend conservatively estimates that it would have taken another 200* hours.”

(* These 200 hours would undoubtedly be for both rugs together.)

We believe that today, this work would take about one-third less time. Still the number of hours involved is staggering. We once asked Mary Lou Curtis, a fine weaver from Leupp, Arizona, how long it took her to make a 2.5 x 4 foot, Ganado-style rug she had just sold us for $300 cash and $100 trade. Her response: “About 3 weeks, but I didn’t weave all the time.” Note that if the weaver uses vegetable dyes and picks the plants herself, time and cost would increase.

Conclusion

This article has been general in nature. Our goal was to place the development of weaving into the context of Navajo history. Today, we note a trend among the better weavers to blend two or more regional styles in a single weaving. Many of these works are truly magnificent, and they are gathering today’s top competitive awards.

In closing, we invite you to compare a fine Navajo weaving with a fine oil painting. Few object to a price tag in the high hundreds to the thousands of dollars for a painting. But many remark, “Why is that ‘rug’ so high, it’s only wool?” If this were true, then a painting would merely be oil and canvas. The time involved in creating a beautiful art piece in wool is, undoubtedly, greater. An artist can paint over an error on a canvas, but a weaving error is far more difficult (or impossible) to remove. If you run out of paint, you can buy more. If you run out of a particular color yarn, on the other hand, it will probably be impossible to dye another batch in exactly the same shade.

Fortunately, Navajo weaving has become recognized as a major art form, not only in the U.S., but also in Europe and Asia. The future bodes well for Navajo weaving artists and those who collect their work.

Recommended Reading

Indian Blankets and Their Makers, George Wharton James, Rio Grande Press, Inc. Glorietta, NM, 1974 (first published in 1927).

Posts and Rugs, H.L. James, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Globe, AZ, 1976, 1979.

Navajo Rugs: Past, Present and Future, Gilbert S. Maxwell. Bell West Publications, Palm Desert, CA. First printing Nov. 1963, 15th printing August 1973.

Navajo Rugs: How to Find, Evaluate, Buy and Care for Them, Don Dedera. Northland Press, Flagstaff, AZ, first printing, 1975, 3rd printing 1979.

Southwestern Weaving, Marian E. Rodee. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1977

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