Navajo Weaving, A History (2022)

Many Americans have heard about and even own Navajo rugs.

They were those quaint objects that grandma and grandpa brought home from the Southwest generations ago. Usually, they were poorly regarded and roughly used and never respected as anything but rugs. Sure, everyone knew they wore well – in fact some outwear more traditional floor coverings. Almost everyone with a horse had a saddle blanket, but they were just Navajo rugs. Who cared? The romance had been lost in the shuffle. People used them, stored them, wore them out or just discarded them. So what’s the hoopla about now? Why was a Navajo blanket sold at auction by Sotheby in New York for more than $100,000 in 1983?*

How come astute collectors flock to auctions and Indian shows to buyNavajo weavingfrom the last century? Why do so many Decorator magazines feature contemporary Navajo weavings in stylish homes and offices? The answer to all of this questions lies in the realization that the products of the Navajo loom are true Native American folk art. Indeed, what is more American than a Navajo weaving. It was born on the loom of the Pueblo Indians of the southwest who wove cotton apparel and later with wool of Spanish sheep acquired by raiding Spanish ranches in the mid-seventeenth century. Weaving appeared in the tradition of Pueblo mantas or shoulder blankets. The two-piece dress evolved in the late 18 century and by 1800 Navajo weaving had reached the peak of perfection. The famed Chief blankets and serapes were developed during the Nineteenth Century and became highly prized trade items. The beauty of these superbly woven blankets exceeded the weavings available in the American West. Very few pieces from the early era survive and those that do are housed mostly in museums and private collections.

So how does this pertain to the weaving of today? Only in the sense that the events described above and the evolution of various styles of weaving such as the Chief’s blankets, serapes and finally rugs set the stage for dramatic events that changed the future of weaving. One must bear in mind that the American west was not a civilized place when the Spanish arrived in the late Sixteenth Century.

(Video) 150 Years of Navajo Weaving

It was only slightly more civilized when the Spanish lost control to Mexico in the early 1820s. Violence had been the keystone. Spanish armies captured Navajo and Apache alike and forced them into slavery. Navajo bands raided the Spanish ranches and inflicted terror on the people. The more sheep a man had the greater his wealth. This lowly animal provided food, fiber and riches. The marauding Navajo bands drove home the sheep that provided the wool for the talented weavers.

So how does this pertain to the weaving of today? Only in the sense that the events described above and the evolution of various styles of weaving such as the Chief’s blankets, serapes and finally rugs set the stage for dramatic events that changed the future of weaving. One must bear in mind that the American west was not a civilized place when the Spanish arrived in he late Sixteenth Century. It was only slightly more civilized when the Spanish lost control to Mexico in the early 1820s. Violence had been the keystone. Spanish armies captured Navajo and Apache alike and forced them into slavery. Navajo bands raided the Spanish ranches and inflicted terror on the people. The more sheep a man had the greater his wealth. This lowly animal provided food, fiber and riches. The marauding Navajo bands drove home the sheep that provided the wool for the talented weavers.

When considering a Navajo rug - the common terminology for all Navajo weaving - it is important to realize that the product is one hundred percent handmade. There are no machine made Navajo rugs. There are imitations which are occasionally mislabeled as genuine Navajo rugs. A reputable dealer will advise you how to determine if a rug is genuine. Weaving is traditionally taught by mother to daughter. The youngster is first taught to clean the wool, then to spin and finally a small loom is assembled, and the warp is strung.

(Video) History Behind Southwestern Arts: Textile Weaving

Patterns and designs are rarely diagrammed and even the youngest weaver is taught to plan her designs and colors in her head – to visualize the complete product. The Navajo loom is upright as opposed to the horizontal type used in Mexican and Spanish weaving. The exact length and width of the textile must be planned because the ends or selvedge is attached be fore any weaving is done. The wool is washed, carded and spun, and in some cases dyed. Only after this labored work is accomplished can the weaving begin.

Navajo weaving is constantly changing. In the latter part of the 19th century the white traders influenced the patterns, designs and sizes of Navajo rugs. Prior to this period most weaving was for wearing blankets and garments. The demand for the fine old blankets declined while the demand for rugs grew. The traders suggested patterns and provided a market for the finished product. Rugs were often bought by the pound and sold by the bale to outlets in the east. There they competed with oriental rugs and factory made products. Quality didn’t matter, quantity did. The quality of Navajo weaving sharply declined. It became obvious to some far sighted traders that this pound rug mentality would destroy the art. So traders such as Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado from 1883 until 1930, J.B.Moore at Crystal and several others took a direct hand in influencing the course of Navajo weaving.

Hubbell loved red and encouraged his weavers to use the new aniline dyes to weave exquisite red-dominated rugs. Hubbell also encouraged the weaver to recreate in contemporary material the designs of the past. Today these products of the "Hubbell revival" are highly prized items. At the Crystal Trading Post from 1896 until 1911, J.B.Moore emphasized the oriental or Persian influence so popular with buyers in the east. A mail order catalog showing the characteristic Crystal patterns was printed and distributed by Moore who disliked the idea of buying and selling by the pound but bowed to the desires of his customers. These old Crystal patterns have largely disappeared from contemporary weaving. Today the Crystal area is famed for the vegetal dyed rugs designed with a striped motif.

Speaking of vegetal dyes it may be something of a surprise to learn that this was not an old Navajo tradition. In the late 1930s, Bill and Sally Lippincott bought the Wide Ruins Trading Post and encouraged the use of vegetal and native dyes. They upgraded the designs and quality so that now, fifty years later, the Wide Ruins area is the source of many pleasing and exquisitely woven rugs. No article on Navajo weaving would be complete without mentioning the famous Two Grey Hills designs. The neighboring trading posts of Two Grey Hills and Toadlena are the homes of these beautiful weavings. Early traders, Ed Davies at Two Grey Hills and George Bloomfield at Toadlena took over the posts about 1909. In his book,

Navajo Rugs – Past – Present and Future, Gilbert Maxwell describes how these two men spent "long patient hours on their knees, not praying, but going over each stitch of the rug with the weaver." Fine points were complimented, encouragement given to improve, always improve. Quality was rewarded by better prices and soon the rugs became known as the finest available.

Today, the Two Grey Hills remains the premium creation of the Navajo loom. Expert weavers, using the techniques of their ancestors, weave fine tapestries with a thread count of the weft exceeding one hundred threads per inch. Still the amount of time that it takes to weave a Two Grey Hills tapestry quality - eighty warp threads or finer – is amazing. We purchased a tapestry in 1982 from a fine weaver, the daughter of a fine weaver. The piece was twenty inches by thirty-two inches. It was on the loom for fourteen months! Forty-five extra days were spent in preparation of the wool before weaving began. For this work she was paid almost $9,000. Recently she informed us that it was too much work for the money and she planned to become a computer operator in Gallup.

This brings us to an important point. For years we have been hearing that Navajo weaving is doomed. In some respects this is true. The majority of weavers are thirty-five years of age or older. Many weavers are active until they reach sixty or seventy but the majority give up the hard work by the age of fifty- five. Fewer and fewer young women are learning the art. It is just too much work! During the recent economic hard times many weavers who had depended on off-reservation work returned to the loom. However, it always amazes me that the contemporary Navajo weaver has no great sense of history or a link with the wonderful weavers of the past. There is no compelling historic reason to weave simply because her mother is a weaver and grandmother may have been. If the money is good, weaving is continued. If it isn’t, then the weavers will tend to quit altogether. For this reason there will always be Navajo weavers active at the loom. Poorer weavers will drop off along the line and the better ones will receive better and better prices. Relating to prices I am always amused when some- one says, "I bought a rug like that right after the war for $40 and you want $400." I wonder if they have bought a car lately. Navajo families are subject to the same pressures that we are. Sure the roads are better and the pickup has replaced the wagon but they still have living expenses in a primitive hogan or modern home.

(Video) Navajo Rug Weaving ~ Monument Valley

Our philosophy is not to pay as little as we can but to pay the weaver as much as we can. Most traders feel this way. Recognition is so important to weaver and ultimate owner alike. Names and photos are also important. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know who the weaver was of the fine old blankets? We never will, but we can document for the future. Recent trends in Navajo weaving point up an important fact about the attitude of the weaver. Frequently we see a swing away from the old "regional" design concept. Serious weavers are doing their own thing. They don’t want to be bound by tradition and are creating new and marvelous designs. Vegetal weavers are working with colors. Pictorial weavers are creating new landscapes and whimsical settings.

Storm patterns are emerging with imaginative variations. Whole new "areas" are coming to the forefront. Serious weavers are showing innovation and boldness by the use of color and design. I refer specifically to a family whom we call the "Barber and Begay family" who live in a place not known for fine weaving. Spectacular designs in combination with vegetal dyes and natural wool colors give new hope for similar creativity in other locales. We were amazed when we were first presented with one of these weavings. "Two Grey Hills?" "No!" "Teec Nos Pos, probably!" "No - It is MY pattern. It is my rug. It is a Helen Begay rug." Interestingly, the entire family group shares this feeling. There is always some new and exciting development in weaving. The study of contemporary Navajo weaving is continually stimulating, always rewarding, never dull!

There are many concerns about the future of weaving. First is compensation. If the prices are not satisfactory and rewarding, the weavers will no longer weave. There is the concern of soaring birthrates and the consequent lack of grazing land for everyone in Navajoland. Wool, in many cases, must be purchased from outside sources as not every family has sheep. Family life in isolated compounds and remote camps is being changed by housing projects, government jobs, welfare and off reservation employment. Weaving projects in certain areas are not successful because the compensation of the weaver is by the hour and quality is not stressed. However, there are many talented weavers. They are weaving away relatively unhindered by some of the above mentioned factors. The quality of weaving today is in most cases superior to anything in the past. Only in some of the great blankets of a century or more ago do we see equal skill manifested.

Are Navajo rugs a good investment? The answer is a qualified "Yes." While I do not believe in buying any art as an investment, I suggest buying it for enjoyment now and in the future. If you choose wisely and carefully, select what you like and depend on a knowledgeable dealer to advise you, it can be an investment. If you expect a quick profit, forget it. Prices have risen dramatically as the quality of weave- ing improved and the numbers of weavers declined. This trend should continue. Above all, study, read and learn. Then enjoy owning a fine Navajo weaving. No, Navajo weaving is not dead. It is alive and well and totally acceptable in modern homes and offices. Reputable dealers are located throughout the United States. Weavers are busy at their looms weaving the rugs and tapestries and pictorials that will become heirlooms. Navajo weaving is an exciting art form – a truly American art form and a joy to own and collect. What is more American than a Navajo rug?

* A chief's blanket sold at Sotheby's in 1997 for $350,000

(Video) Navajo Weaving

FAQs

When did Navajo weaving start? ›

The Navajo may have learned to weave from their Pueblo Indian neighbors when they moved into the Four Corners region during the year 1000 A.D. Some experts contend that the Navajo were not weavers until after the 17th century.

Why is weaving important to Navajo culture? ›

According to Navajo tradition, weaving is the most ancient and sacred practice of their people. Two spirits, the Spider People, brought hemp seeds to the Navajo. Spider Man taught them to make the loom, while Spider Woman taught them how to weave so that they could always provide for themselves.

What are the Navajo famous for weaving? ›

The famed Chief blankets and serapes were developed during the Nineteenth Century and became highly prized trade items. The beauty of these superbly woven blankets exceeded the weavings available in the American West.

How does Navajo weaving work? ›

Weft yarns are woven diagonally across the warp yarns, pulling the warp yarns askew and creating scalloped edges and distinctive zigzag designs. Other published names for this eccentric weave include “scalloped edge weave,” “lightning design,” “pulled warp,” “overstuffing,” “knock warp,” and “lazy weave.”

What is the history of weaving? ›

The development of spinning and weaving began in ancient Egypt around 3400 before Christ (B.C). The tool originally used for weaving was the loom. From 2600 B.C. onwards, silk was spun and woven into silk in China. Later in Roman times the European population was clothed in wool and linen.

What is the tradition of weaving? ›

The tradition of weaving traces back to Neolithic times – approximately 12,000 years ago. Even before the actual process of weaving was discovered, the basic principle of weaving was applied to interlace branches and twigs to create fences, shelters and baskets for protection.

What does weaving symbolize? ›

The art of weaving is a profound metaphor for understanding the workings of the universe and our place in it. Through the physical process of weaving, we gain a better understanding of this world and how we as human beings are woven into it. We are bound to our bodies with the fragile threads of earth.

What is the Navajo pattern called? ›

Banded Navajo blankets from the nineteenth century closely resemble Pueblo antecedents. They are woven longer-than-wide, with varied rhythms of striping and color combinations. One common banded style is the so-called Moqui stripe, named with an alternative (and archaic) term for the Hopi Indians.

Why weaving is important to our culture? ›

In their eyes, weaving was not just a duty for women; rather it carried a sense of pride. Weaving established a sense of responsibility within participants, as they regarded themselves as keepers of the tradition and they contributed to society by creating textiles and garments that depicted their culture.

What is the Navajo culture known for? ›

The Navajo originated from northwest Canada and Alaska around the 15th century, and many of their traditions have survived through time. Their arts, including weaving, basket making, pottery making, and jewelry making continue to be passed on to daughters and granddaughters.

What crafts were the Navajo known for? ›

While the Navajo tribe is recognized for their weaving, silversmithing, basketry, and jewelry-making, this particular craft was less of a speciality. Navajo pottery is quite different from that of other American Indian people.

What are the four steps of weaving? ›

The weaving process consists of several phases, such as: winding, warping, sizing, drawing-in, weaving and finally the control on the greige fabric.

What are the four weaving techniques? ›

Five common weave patterns include:
  • Plain Weave. A plain weave is the simplest, most basic type of fabric weave pattern, assembled by the weft thread running through the warp thread in an 'over and under' sequence. ...
  • Twill. ...
  • Satin. ...
  • Basket Weave. ...
  • Leno Weave.

Why do Navajos keep their hair long? ›

Their beliefs around long hair, as many of their beliefs, are tied to the earth and nature. The long hair has symbolic significance tying them to mother earth whose hair is long grasses.

What are the 3 basic weaves? ›

The basic weaves include plain (or tabby), twills, and satins.

What culture started weave? ›

Although it's not completely clear as to the exact day, it seems to be the consensus that weaves originated around 5000 B.C. in Egypt. Some say that the wearing of weaves and extensions was synonymous with stature. In other words, the richer you were, the more extravagant your extensions.

Who is the most famous Weaver? ›

The most famous weaver of these textiles was Daisy Taugelchee (1909-1990), who wove upwards of 115 wefts per inch, which created the most finely woven Navajo tapestries anywhere.

Which place is famous for weaving? ›

Banaras, Uttar Pradesh

As for everything else Banaras is famous for, try your luck with Banarasi Silks and Brocades, since it is one of the most rich weaving craft centers of India.

What are the principle of weaving? ›

Principles of Weaving | The Loom Room. Weaving is very simple. You essentially have two sets of threads – one set, pre-wound, called the warp, running vertically and kept under tension, and the other set threaded individually through the vertical threads, usually at right angles, called the weft.

What is a weaver spiritually? ›

Weaving is the ancient art of recognizing health and wholeness as the primary state, and overcoming the blockages of seemingly broken connections. Weavers are healers of the unbroken whole — connecting people and place in elegant tapestries of shared meaning and visions of a world that works for all.

Is weaving a dying tradition? ›

To some extent, weaving has become a dying art form. Through the decades, the number of weavers has diminished due to age (most of them are old), lack of interest from the new generation, lack of demand from both local and international markets, dated concept or ideology and support for sustainable livelihood.

What are the four sacred colors of the Navajo? ›

Four colors in particular black, white, blue, and yellow have important connections to Navajo cultural and spiritual beliefs. These colors represent the four cardinal directions.

What is the Navajo symbol? ›

Wikipedia: "The swastika was a widely used Native American symbol. It was used by many southwestern tribes, most notably the Navajo. Among different tribes the swastika carried various meanings.

Which country invented weaving? ›

The Egyptians were known for their ability to grow, process and weave linen however it was in India and Peru where they created the first cotton. Mesopotamia produced wool fabrics and China was the first to country to produce silk.

What are the 4 categories of Navajo rugs? ›

NAVAJO RUG ID #1

These are the Ganado, Klagetoh, Two Grey Hills, and Burntwater rugs described below. The Ganado and Klagetoh tend to have simpler designs than the similar Two Grey Hills, and Burntwater rugs.

What is my Navajo rug worth? ›

The value of a Navajo rug will depend on a few factors, such as how large it is, how old it is, how tight the weaving is, the style, what dyes were used, and what condition it is in. Navajo rugs can range anywhere from $100 for a small one, to several thousand dollars for a large and old one.

What is a spirit line in a Navajo rug? ›

There is another deliberate imperfection called the Spirit Line or Spirit Pathway. Navajo believe that when weaving a rug, the weaver entwines part of her or his spirit into the rug. The spirit line prevents the weavers spirit from being trapped and allows weaver's spirit to safely exit the rug.

What race are Navajo? ›

Race & Ethnicity

The largest Navajo racial/ethnic groups are American Indian (95.4%) followed by Two or More (2.6%) and Hispanic (1.3%).

What is sacred to the Navajo? ›

Mother Earth is also sacred and all that she offers the Navajos is therefore sacred: mountains, vegetation, animals, and water. Many prayers for blessings are addressed to Mother Earth, Father Sky, the Four Winds, and White Dawn, to name a few.

What made the Navajo unique? ›

The Navajo are known for their woven rugs and blankets. They first learned to weave cotton from the Pueblo peoples. When they started to raise sheep they switched to wool. These blankets were valuable and only the wealthy leaders could afford them.

Where are Navajos originally from? ›

The Apache language is closely related to the Navajo Language; the Navajos and Apaches are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside.

What materials did the Navajo people used to make clothes? ›

Answer and Explanation: The Navajo made their clothes by hand. Before they started raising sheep and had access to wool, their clothes were made from woven yucca and animal skins. The women wore dresses and the men wore breechcloths and they both wore leggings, moccasins, and ponchos when it was cold.

What is the two technique used in weaving? ›

Basic weaving techniques include the plain weave, whereby the weft thread passes over and under each warp thread at a right angle. In a twill weave, the weft passes over two warp threads and then under one or more warp threads.

What are the skills required for weaving? ›

eye-hand coordination and concentration. problem-solving skills. Children need to consider and work through any problems they encounter as they weave. understanding of patterns and sequencing, which are essential for later literacy and numeracy development.

What are five materials used for weaving? ›

For example, grasses, bamboo, vines, oak, willow, reeds, and honeysuckle are all commonly used materials for weaving.

What is the strongest weave? ›

Plain weave is stronger and firmer than any other ordinary weave. Both sides are identical (reversible). Because of the even consistency of its surface texture, when threads of similar thickness are used, it is known as a “Balanced Weave” and can be identified by it's checkerboard like appearance.

Which type of weaving is the strongest? ›

1. Plain Weave. Plain weave is the most fundamental type of textile weave which forms a strong, durable, and versatile cloth. In plain weave, the warp and weft are interlaced in a basic criss-cross pattern, with the weft thread passing over the warp in an 'over and under' sequence.

What is the main tool of weaving? ›

A loom is used for cloth and tapestry weaving. To allow interweaving of the weft threads, every loom's basic function is to keep the warp threads under tension. The exact form and mechanics of the loom differ, but the basic purpose is similar. It is one of the must-have weaving tools.

What is a Navajo bun called? ›

When it's tied up typically with spun sheep's wool or buckskin, the thoughts and prayers of Navajo people are contained within the bun, called a tsiiyeel in Navajo.

Why do Navajos cut their hair? ›

Of course, the specific powers of hair vary from tribe to tribe—for the Navajo Nation, hair is traditionally only cut in circumstances of mourning, while the Apache peoples hold haircutting ceremonies each spring to ensure health and success.

What are the 4 Native colors? ›

The four colors (black, white, yellow, and red) embody concepts such as the Four Directions, four seasons, and sacred path of both the sun and human beings. Arrangement of colors vary among the different customs of the Tribes.

What is the oldest form of weaving? ›

The oldest evidence of weaving traditions are Neolithic stone tools used for preparing barkcloth found in archeological sites in Sagung Cave of southern Palawan and Arku Cave of Peñablanca, Cagayan. The latter has been dated to around 1255–605 BCE.

When was the earliest evidence of weaving? ›

The project focuses in particular on the identification of what plants were used in making the earliest textiles (about 28,000 to 20,000 years ago). The first evidence for the technique of weaving and the known oldest woven textiles are found in the context of the Eurasian Palaeolithic.

Did Native Americans weave clothes? ›

People also made use of animal hair to weave or knit into clothes. Early settlers brought sheep for wool, and Southeastern Indians used the hair from buffalos and opossums. Much clothing, both in the past and today, was made from plant fibers.

What is the oldest weaving techniques? ›

Flax weavings are found in Fayum, Egypt, dating from around 5000 BC. First popular fiber in ancient Egypt was flax, which was replaced by wool around 2000 BC. By the beginning of counting the time weaving was known in all the great civilizations.

Who made the first weave? ›

The hair weave was invented in 1951 by an African American woman named Christina Jenkins.

What is the main purpose of weaving? ›

Weaving is a process used to create fabric by interlacing threads.

Why is weaving so important? ›

The art of weaving is a profound metaphor for understanding the workings of the universe and our place in it. Through the physical process of weaving, we gain a better understanding of this world and how we as human beings are woven into it. We are bound to our bodies with the fragile threads of earth.

Why is weaving important to indigenous people? ›

Weaving skills are passed on from mother to daughter and are considered an important criterion for a woman's marriage (Devi 2012; 2013). In certain NERI tribes, women weave intricate textiles to express their love to their partners (Devi 2012).

What is the five types of weaving? ›

Five common weave patterns include:
  • Plain Weave. A plain weave is the simplest, most basic type of fabric weave pattern, assembled by the weft thread running through the warp thread in an 'over and under' sequence. ...
  • Twill. ...
  • Satin. ...
  • Basket Weave. ...
  • Leno Weave.

Videos

1. NVTV - Anecita Agustinez (Navajo/Dine) - "Navajo Rugs"
(Native Voice TV)
2. Florence Riggs Interview (Diné Textile Weaving)
(GrandCanyonNPS)
3. Spider Woman Teaches The Navajo How To Weave
(Theresa RoosaSwain)
4. Navajo Weaving Documentary
(Haskheh Nataani)
5. Navajo Weavers Carry on Centuries-Old Tradition
(Voice of America)
6. How It s Made Navajo Rugs
(How It's Made Show)

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