In our last blog post, we introduced the art of Navajo weaving and how Native American blankets fit into the culture and tradition of the Navajo. Today, we delve a little deeper into the art of Navajo weaving.
Navajo rugs, throws, and blankets are among the most revered of all Native American handicrafts as they are so colorful and well-made.
Historically, the Navajo were semi-nomadic peoples (who incidentally share genetic traits with the Mongols, natives of Mongolia), and who eventually settled in the Southwest one thousand years ago. In their newly settled life, they became farmers and they adopted the art of weaving, following being instructed by the Hopi on how to build looms and to weave large-scale fabrics. When Europeans introduced domesticated sheep to the Navajo, a steady supply of available wool from sheep the Navajo raised led to a revolution in weaving.
Prior to 1800, natural-colored wool was predominantly used, in black, white, and shades of gray. Some dark colors were achieved by using soil minerals, roots and herbs to dye wool. Indigo was used from about 1600 to dye blue colors. It was made by the Mexicans into cakes from leaves and stems from the Indigofera shrub and traded. The Navajo then dissolved these cakes in fermented urine, following which white wool was dipped to achieve the desired depth of blue coloring. Yellow dyes were sourced from the rabbit-brush plant from about 1850, and by 1800, the Navajo traded for Spanish cloth that was red. They unraveled this and used it to weave their own designs. In the late 1800s, aniline dyes were introduced and these characterized the vibrantly colorful Navajo weaving of that time.
The earliest fragments of Navajo weaving found to date were located in the Massacre Cave in Canon del Muerte, Arizona. Early Navajo rugs were wider than they were in length and were designed in simple brown and white stripes, as well as one sample with blue striping. As time went on, while Hopi weaving designs were limited to striped patterns, the Navajo incorporated diamonds, geometrics, lozenge shapes, and zigzag designs into their weaving. Only after the early 1820s did the Navajo introduce symbolism such as the seasons and animals, and Navajo weaving became more influenced by the Spanish-Mexican weaving design principles.
Navajo blankets or “Chief’s Blankets” are warm, supple, and resistant to water. They were highly sought and greatly valued, and trade of these extended to the Plains Indians, especially for the Lakota and the Ute. Only the families of tribal Chiefs could afford them (interestingly, the Navajo culture did not have its own Chiefs).
1833 painting by Karl Bodmer: Montana Blackfoot Man wearing a Navajo Chief’s Blanket.
Using traditional loom hand-weaving practices, it takes two to three months to weave a basic Navajo rug. While many Native American throws and blankets are now mass-produced by companies like Pendleton, the art of weaving remains entrenched in the traditions of the Navajo and other Southwestern American Indian tribes.
Visit Indian Traders to find a beautiful array of Native American throws, blankets, and rugs.