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A Brief History of Navajo Weaving and Some Guidelines for Collecting

Navajo weaving is a unique Native American art form produced only on the upright primitive looms of this Southwestern tribe. The Navajo arrived in what is now New Mexico and Arizona around 1400 AD after migrating from Asia across the Bering Straits. They arrived towards the end of the Anasazi era in the Four Corners area. The Anasazi migrated southward to become the Pueblo Indians who lived in villages along the Rio Grande Valley. While the Navajos were hunters and gatherers, the Pueblo people lived in permanent homes, constructed of adobe, which gave them the ability to be an agricultural society. One of their crops was cotton which was used by the men of the Pueblo to weave shawls, belts and sashes.

The Spanish arrived in 1540 and, during the next century, brought thousands of sheep to the area. The Navajo adopted the animal and developed large herds. In 1680, the Spanish were driven from New Mexico during the Great Pueblo Revolt. Over the next decade, they returned with a vengeance and many Pueblo people fled to the hills and canyons of the Southwest to live with the Navajo. They brought their weaving skills with them which Navajo women quickly learned using wool instead of cotton. Today, the vast majority of weavers are women, although several men have won recognition for their fine work. 

The Navajo blankets were highly prized by the Spanish and other tribes. They were woven both to be worn and to be traded or sold. As the settlement of the Southwest continued, the Navajo lands became part of the United States. After a period of extreme hardship, warfare, captivity and deprivation, the Navajo people were granted a reservation encompassing much of their original homelands in Northern Arizona and New Mexico. In return they agreed to quit raiding and making war on their neighbors. The American style of dress began to replace the wearing blanket.

Trading post owners across the reservation encouraged the weavers to turn their looms to the production of rugs to be sold to the eastern markets. Several traders played an important part in developing quality weavings. Juan Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado, Arizona encouraged weavers to work with red dyes. The region became know for the Ganado Red.

Weavers in the Shiprock, New Mexico area were encouraged to weave figures from their traditional sand painting designs. These figures, representing Navajo Gods, were called Yei Rugs.

At Two Grey Hills and Toadelena, George Bloomfield and Ed Davies liked natural colored wool, geometric patterns and top quality. The Two Grey Hills rug evolved. The story was repeated across the reservation and eventually over half of the weavings could be attributed to a specific trading post region.

J.B. Moore, at Crystal Trading Post, published a catalog to promote weaving. All of these traders promoted and paid for quality work. Until the middle of this century, nearly every Navajo woman could weave. She would tend her sheep and participate in the shearing of the wool. She would then wash the wool, card it with hand carding combs and spin the wool into yarn using a spindle that she would run up and down on her leg, gently transforming the bundles of wool into fine yarn. She would then dye the wool, sometimes from dyes made with native plants, or use the natural wool color. Her simple upright loom, a rectangle fashioned from two poles on the sides with a wooded pole across both the top and the bottom that the warp can be attached to would be set up. The warp would be attached to the frame and she would begin the long process of pushing every thread between the warps with her fingers and then pounding it tightly into place with a wooden comb. The pattern emerged from a picture in her mind usually passed down by her mother.

Today, the process is somewhat different. The weaver is the exception in most Navajo families. While many families still raise their own sheep and use the wool, most weaving is done with commercially dyed and spun yarns. This does not take away from the creativity and authenticity of the weaving. In fact, many would argue that the use of new materials has allowed the weavers new freedom. 

The important factor is that any weaving you choose, to be authentic, must have been made on the traditional upright loom. As the quality and beauty of the weavings grew, collectors began to move them from the floors to the wall. New and exciting patterns are evolving.

There is an explosion in creativity and an excitement among weavers who are being recognized as fine artists. When considering the purchase of a Navajo weaving, always visit a reputable dealer. Make them tell you everything they can about the weaving. Ask them to recommend books. They will appreciate your interest. Always buy the best weaving you can afford. You’ll be happier with one nice weaving instead of three lesser quality pieces at the same price. Always buy what you like. Realize that the piece you are buying was likely on the loom for several months. It is handmade and will never be perfect. It should be relatively straight and even, the weaving should be uniform and it should be pleasing to the eye. Most of all, it should be something you like and will enjoy for many years. When you purchase a Navajo weaving you can be proud to know you are helping to preserve the art and traditions of a proud and creative people.