NAVAJO WEAVING, A HISTORY
BY JACKSON H. CLARK
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 buy Navajo weaving from 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 reach 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 and weaving available in the American West. Very few pieces for 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 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.
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.
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