“A Real Navajo Rug” by Master of Vegetal Dye Weaving, Irene Clark
One of my favorite events is when someone walks in the gallery and says something like, “Do you have any real Navajo rugs?”
Looking around at all of the weavings we have in stock, several hundred, I will ask, “What do you mean?”
I mean the ones where they really did all their own work and made their own dyes, you know, before the white man got here,” is the type of answer I’ll sometimes hear.
It's a great question because I then get to explain that before the white man got here (the Spanish) there were no sheep, so the Navajos didn’t weave rugs. And, as soon as the Spanish and the American traders made commercial dyes available, the Navajo weavers jumped on them. Imagine the opportunity to use bright colors that you never had before!
Prior to that, there were a few vegetal dyes used and the weavers also used cloth that they took apart and re-spun which had been dyed with cochineal and indigo, but those really disappeared when commercial dyes became available.
It was not until 1938, when Sallie Wagner and Bill Lippincott moved to the reservation and ended up owning the Wide Ruins Trading Company, that things changed. Sallie began asking the weavers if they had ever used the plants from the area to make their dyes. A few had some small knowledge of vegetal dying but with her guidance, the use of vegetal dyes from wild carrot, Mormon tea, sage, onion skin, oak brush roots and dozens of other plants began to be converted into soft, beautiful dyes to be used in weaving.
Until the 1970’s, vegetal dye weavings were not uncommon, although never as plentiful as aniline dyed pieces or the natural wool colors found in the Two Grey Hills area. Today, that has all changed.
The sad truth is that very few Navajo weavings are currently woven using actual vegetal dyes.
Some years ago, a trader whose name I am not sharing, contracted with a yarn company to create vegetal dye looking yarns that the weavers could use. He felt that the women were working too long and hard having to card, spin and dye wool, in addition to having to pick the plants and make the dyes.
I completely understand. It is hard work. My solution to the problem was to pay the weavers more to make it worth their while. I lost! Today, with a few exceptions, almost all “vegetal dye” color weavings are made with this yarn or something similar.
We have been privileged to have worked with some of the very best, old school,vegetal dye weavers, from Ella Rose Perry to Philomena Yazzie. I marvel at how these women have been able to pull the natural dyes from common plants and create beautiful colors to use in their rugs.
One weaver that we only bought a few rugs from was Irene Clark. Irene was born in 1934 near Crystal, New Mexico. She was a master of the contemporary Crystal design. Her reputation as one of the finest weavers of hand spun vegetal dye weavings is at the top of the list. She is considered an icon to many younger weavers.
Irene lived a long way from Durango and sold most of her pieces further south, but once in awhile we were lucky and she came up to see us.
Here is a link to an excellent article about her, which was written 11 years ago. You’ll find it a pleasure to read.
We recently received a weaving by Irene that was woven in 1985 and was awarded the First Place Blue Ribbon at the O’Odham Tash Indian Festival in Casa Grande, Arizona that year. The blue ribbon is signed by two of the legends among Navajo Indian traders, Bill Young, who ran the Hubbell Trading Post and Tommy Kirk, a well known trader from Gallup.
It is a beautiful example of a modern Crystal measuring 38” x 48″ and was from the collection of a well known Gallup trader. It is in perfect, unused condition and, although 36 years old, it looks brand new.
By agreement, we can only give the name of the original owner to the purchaser of the weaving.
In 1985, Irene Clark was at the height of her skills. This weaving is a documented award winner, by one of the finest women to ever work with vegetal dyes, and one that deserves a great home. It is priced at $5400.00.
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