How to Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman — Rebecca Mezoff (2022)

Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas are sisters and tapestry weaving and teaching powerhouses. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to them at various events over the years and I’m always delighted to connect with their knowledge, insight, and fantastic sense of humor. They are not only wonderful human beings, but they have a passion for teaching that I seldom see matched. Before COVID they traveled extensively to teach most of the year. They teach workshops for Diné (Navajo) students frequently as many families lost their weaving knowledge due to racist and repressive practices of the US government two generations ago (and more). There are young Diné weavers working again today thanks in part to Lynda and Barbara’s work. (See the resources guide in the book for how to contact some of them about purchasing their artwork.)

I ran into Lynda and Barbara last year in Harrisville, N.H. when we took the photoshoot for my book to Harrisville Designs for a day. They were teaching a class and very kindly let me and the photographer interrupt their lessons to take some photos in the weaving studio. The class looked like they were having so much fun, I wished I could stay and weave.

Lynda and Barbara have been teaching Navajo weaving for a long time all over the USA and the world. Their first book, Spider Woman’s Children is one of my favorites from Thrums Publishing. That book was full of stories of weavers on the Navajo reservation.

Their new book, also from Thrums Publishing, is called How to Weave a Navajo Rug. It is hardback with a spiral binding. The book is a smaller format. It has lovely, rich photography and clear diagrams.

This book is part how-to book and part expression of a culture many people have little to no knowledge about. I grew up in Gallup, NM which is on the edge of the Navajo Reservation. The county I am from is 75% Native American but even though I spent my formative years going to school with kids from the tribes surrounding Gallup, there is so much I don’t know about the Diné people’s vibrant culture and way of life. This book offers a peek into one aspect of that culture, the weavers, and by extension, their tools, materials, and way of practicing.

The book is full of images from Dinétah and they feel so familiar to me because of course, many of these places are places I’ve been. Lynda and Barbara are from Two Grey Hills which is just north of Gallup. The book is also full of humor which I sense runs deep not only in Barbara and Lynda, but in the fiber of the Diné people.

Much like their last book, Spider Woman’s Children, the story told in this book is centered around family and culture. The authors locate themselves within their clans and weaving tradition which is always a powerful reminder of the long history of this woven form and the deep roots in culture and spirituality these weavings represent.

“Ultimately, it’s the genuine love of family and tradition that keeps us weaving.”

I am a white woman who grew up on the edges of a brilliant and deep culture. I have watched some non-Navajo people treat Navajo weaving as something they can co-opt and other non-Navajo people treat this tradition with respect and as something they can learn from for their own artistic practices and life. I believe Lynda and Barbara are hoping that this book in the hands of non-Navajos will take the later approach. Understanding the tradition and maybe even spending some time attempting to weave as the Diné do, is a way to put yourself in some small way into the perspective of another culture.

They wrote this book for Diné readers to encourage them to continue weaving and passing on the knowledge. And for the rest of us, they say this: “To our non-Navajo readers, we give you a glimpse into our Diné weaving world. We encourage you to apply these weaving techniques to expand your own weaving styles and enhance your weaving techniques. Attempts to understand each other’s culture and way of life, strengthened by friendship in creating art together, make our unique fiber community a kind world.”*

I really got sucked into the beginning of the book where they tell the Navajo creation story and then present the story of the Diné as told by an anthropologist. Reading the two stories side by side serves to highlight the different worlds Lynda and Barbara are melding as they teach weaving all over the world. It isn’t so much Navajo versus written history, but a broader perspective and understanding of culture, ritual, and a way of life. I really love that these two things can be allowed to live side by side and even create some harmony.

“Many non-Navajos come to our classes to learn about the weaving, our culture, and our traditions. Knowledge and instruction are freely given, but students are not being taught to be Navajo weavers. If a weaver isn’t Navajo, then Navajo weaving is not their tradition. Students are being taught the techniques. They are being given a safe place to explore and learn about our cultural woven traditions. By teaching all who want to learn, we are cultivating a diverse community of allies.”

Chapters 2 and 3 talk about the tools and materials used. Some Navajo families have sheep, many no longer do. They discuss spinning, carding, and spindles. They also dive into the Navajo loom and why they use the loom they do to teach on. Throughout the book, they make sure to identify the correct names for the tools and parts of the loom including important behaviors surrounding these tools.

Starting with chapter 4 they discuss actual weaving practices. The description of Navajo warping takes a step-by-step approach using a small student loom that Lynda and Barbara teach on. This loom and other tools described in the book are made by Lynda’s husband Belvin. I will admit that some of the instructions seem a little confusing even though I have warped a Navajo loom myself. I should say that I did this using instructions from a book written by a white woman because that distinction seems important. This method of warping is very different than warping other sorts of tapestry looms or looms with beams.

Chapters 5 and 6 are about how to set up the loom with the shed rods, something that is very important in this method of weaving. The Navajo are innovative in their use of battens and shed sticks and all tapestry weavers could stand to take a page out of their playbook in this regard.

Chapters 7 and 8 are the chapters about the actual weaving and technique. The authors take the approach that I suspect they use in their workshops of presenting a specific pattern and then showing you step-by-step how to weave it. This is where I struggled with this book. I couldn’t find a description of the weft interlock they’re using or even a photograph or illustration showing how this interlock should be done. There are no weaving techniques listed in the brief index at all. There are images of how to weave the sampler, but I found the exclusion of a description of this one technique used to make the block diamond patterns a pretty large oversight. The only weaving techniques presented are the basic use of the two sheds, how to start a new weft when you run out, and how to make one specific design.

I really wished for more description about the difficulties that are encountered and even just a few more sentences about details that are a deep part of Diné weaving but are not elucidated in the book. One example is the fact that all wefts go in the same direction. This is a significant difference from European-style tapestry weaving and many readers of the book will struggle to understand this without a bit more help.

Summary

As someone who grew up next to this culture but not inside of it, I can only attempt to tell you my current feelings about this book. I should be clear that the book itself is beautiful, the photos are clear if a little small, and the cultural information and narrative is wonderful. As an anglo (white person, non-Navajo), this book is frustrating because I don’t think it really tells you how to weave a Navajo rug. I would be hard-pressed if I didn’t know anything about warping and weaving on a Navajo loom to produce the project in the book.

As a non-Navajo who grew up along side the Diné, I find this book rather enchanting. I feel that it is a representation of a culture that has a very circular way of thinking. I absolutely love this about my Navajo friends. Their perspective is truly different than mine and I need that ability to embrace fluidity and change so much in my linear white-person life. This book seems to me to be a beautiful representation of the teaching and artwork of Lynda and Barbara and of the larger Diné tradition. It is a bit circular and there are mysteries that are not elucidated. If you are not native, you will likely find this book lacking. But I’d encourage you to look again. Embrace this as a story of a culture, a way of making, and a marker of an ongoing experience of time that is not really linear.

If non-linear or “circular” concepts of time don’t make any sense to you, join me in learning to see the world through different eyes. In a nation (the USA specifically) that was founded on the eradication of native peoples and then slavery of black people and other non-white ethnicities, it is the place of the white person especially to sit back and listen.** This book along with Lynda and Barbara’s first book, Spider Woman’s Children, gives us an opportunity to hear one of those native culture’s stories.

It is most definitely the case that Lynda and Barbara are outstanding teachers. They have taught all over the USA and internationally. I have not had the joy of taking one of their classes (yet), but even from my brief peek inside one on my visit to Harrisville Designs, I believe their teaching follows their culture. It has a lot to do with showing and students listening instead of lots of words and explanations. That fits with this book. It is a start at learning more about Navajo weaving, but the experience of sitting next to the loom of a weaver and watching her/him weave is what is missing. That isn’t possible in book format, but we can look for opportunities to watch, listen, and learn in other ways. Let this book be a start.

“Weaving encompasses our ability to acknowledge all forms of life, including duality, as we honor females and males and the equality of assigned roles. Weaving instills in us a quest for beauty, a balance of energy, harmony, and acceptance of our current state from birth to old age—the beauty of the circle of life.”

For more information about Lynda and Barbara’s teaching as well as tools and equipment, visit Lynda’s website here: https://www.navajorugweavers.com/

The banner image on this post is a table of Navajo spindles that Barbara Teller Ornelas was going to be using for teaching spinning during their Harrisville workshop. Information about where to purchase these spindles is included in the book.

*There is a lengthier section later in the book about cultural appropriation.

**Even writing this review gives me pause because it is simply my interpretation of what I see and feel about this book. It is undoubtedly true that I am missing a deeper story and so I am sure my thoughts will continue to evolve, at least I hope they do!

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