Design & Make

The Origin of Navajo Textiles

by Christine Mitchell Adams June 07, 2018
ReadThe Origin of Navajo Textiles
 For over 300 years, Navajo weaving has been valued for its importance as a vital native art. The Navajo Reservation is the largest American Indian Reservation in the country, encompassing 16 million acres over Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, with more than 400,000 inhabitants. From the beginning, the Navajo weavers (predominately women) designed textiles without paper and pencil, drawing on their imagination and natural surroundings for inspiration. Identifiable by the strong geometric patterns and flat tapestry-weave, Navajo textiles have been valued by tradesman and collectors since the 1800s – and are praised for their unique beauty and quality to this day.

It’s believed that the Navajo people learned to weave from their neighbors, the Pueblo Indians, during the 17th-century. The two settlements were not on friendly terms for the most part, due to frequent raids on one another’s lands. But they began to rely on each other after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Pueblo fought against the Spanish colonizers and drove them out of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico. The Navajo most likely started to develop their own weaving traditions around this time. Some digressions from the Pueblo way of weaving include “lazy-lines” (diagonal lines across the horizontal wefts), a technique that allowed the Navajo to create patterns other than horizontal bands, which was the more common style of the Pueblo.

Commerce for Navajo clothing and blankets expanded when the Santa Fe Trail opened in 1822. These items could sell for $50 in gold – a good amount of money in those days. The railroad service reached the Navajo in the 1880s. With expanded trade opportunities, weavers began to make rugs and garments, and incorporate more colors, including red, green, yellow, black and gray. Indigo was used to achieve a variety of colors by mixing it with indigenous dyes made from local resources like rabbit brush, cochineal (an extract from the Mesoamerican beetle), pinyon pitch and ashes. Aniline (or synthetic) dyes were introduced when the railroad expanded west.

Navajo textiles were originally woven as saddle blankets, cloaks, dresses and other garments, and featured earth tones, white and indigo (procured as lumps through trade). They used long-staple wool from Iberian Churra sheep, which were brought to the region by the Spanish colonists. Weaving was – and still is – done on upright looms with no moving parts and support poles usually constructed of wood. The textiles are woven on a continuous wool warp, which are the support threads underneath the weft (the yarn that is woven over-and-under the warp). The weaver sits on the floor, wrapping the finished portion of the fabric underneath the loom as she works – a very labor-intensive process right down to the last few inches of the textile needing to be hand-finished with a needle. A weaving can take anywhere from two months to one year – or several – to complete, depending on the size and the complexity of design.

Each weaver has his/her unique designs, but also always includes consistent elements that originated from the original Navajo textiles. In the 1920s, traders started encouraging weavers to name their designs for their region, something that hadn’t been done prior. For example, Lorenzo Hubbel founded the “Ganado Red” in the late 19th-century in the South Central region of the reservation. The style features a distinct red background with accent colors of black, grey, white or brown, woven into diamond, triangle and step patterns. Originating from the east side of the Chuska Mountains in New Mexico, “Two Grey Hills” is known for using un-dyed wool. Each weaver develops a unique color palate by blending the natural wools during the carding process. One of this region’s most famous weavers is Daisy Taugelchee. Born around 1909, Taugelchee won the Gallup Ceremonial (the inter-tribal Indian ceremonial) for 25 years. She is known for weaving 45 to 115 wefts per linear inch (compared to the average 30) – some of the most finely woven textiles in Navajo history.

New patterns and colors soon led to new collectors, including several European-American merchants. C.N. Cotton was the first to advertise Navajo textiles in 1894. He and other sellers made significant efforts to professionalize the production of Navajo textiles. They would arrange to have the wool professionally cleaned, a method usually reserved for higher quality weavings. Traders also began refusing to trade textiles that were woven with commercially bought or chemically dyed wool.

Many women (and men) of the Navajo community continue to weave commercially today. Contemporary and antique woven dealer Garland’s Navajo Rugs in Sedona, Arizona has worked closely with weavers for more than 40 years. As manager Steve Mattoon explains, “Weaving isn’t a dying art, but in the past 30 to 40 years there has been a significant decline in weavers.” This is due to factors like hardships on the reservation and families not having the same amount of available sheep and wool. The slow-down in production – paired with Navajo textile’s rising popularity – has artificially inflated the market value of inferior crafted versions. Mattoon offers a few ways to determine a knock-off: “Imitations are woven up to a point of the pattern being symmetrical. The warps are then cut and the ends woven back into the weft.” Navajo weavers space warps one at a time, whereas knock-offs will have a bundle of warps at the edges. Inauthentic versions will also usually feature processed wool and be lighter in weight than a true Navajo rug.

Weaving is the most labor intensive of all the Native American art forms and is a very important part of the Navajo community’s economy – making it more essential than ever to continue investing in and supporting the work of contemporary weavers. “Younger artists are being creative and breaking away from local tradition to doing something very individual,” says Mattoon – something he believes is very exciting for future generations to explore. Artists like Larry Yazzie were some of the first contemporary weavers to push the boundaries. Yazzie, of the Towering House People in Mexico, learned to weave from his female relatives after he returned from a short term in the army. His innovative asymmetrical designs and “raised outlines” (the threads at the edge of each design overlap two warps and thus are raised) were groundbreaking for 20th-century textiles. Individualized designs like his helped push creativity for the future of Navajo textiles.

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