The Navajo people wove wearing blankets for around 200 years. They have woven floor rugs for more than 100 years. Many of these pieces are currently displayed on walls as works of art, but the original intent was for them to be used on the floor.
What happened between the disappearance of the blanket and the move to the floor rug has always interested me. It was the beginning of a collaboration between two cultures that resulted in the survival of the art of Navajo weaving.
When the Navajo returned from their imprisonment at Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner, NM), they returned to a devastated land. Their hogans had been destroyed, their crops burned, and their sheep were gone. It was a demoralizing experience.
But what was happening at the time was the arrival of the trading posts. It’s a whole different story to get into, but there were ultimately over 200 trading post operations on and around Navajo Land.
The days of the wearing blanket were disappearing as the people began to adopt the style of clothing that the soldiers and their wives wore at Bosque Redondo. The trading posts sold Pendleton blankets and blue jeans along with cloth that women could fashion into dresses.
These stores provided everything the Navajo needed to live. For income to spend or trade at the posts the Navajo sold the wool from their sheep and the feeder lambs that were sent by the railroad to slaughterhouses. But the Navajo were living at a subsistence level. For the trading posts to be successful, it was important to create something that would allow the Navajo to earn money.
No one at the time that had ever been around the Navajo people could have missed the beauty of their wearing blankets. I’ve never understood how it happened, but there seems to have been an enlightenment among trading post operators that the weavings the Navajo women made could be converted to a floor rug.
There was also the fact that the Navajo had always traded their wearing blankets to Plains and Pueblo Indians in exchange for horses, food, guns, and other items. That demand for their blankets was disappearing with the introduction of Hispanic and Pendleton blankets to the Pueblos and the placing the Plains tribes onto reservations.
Logically, there had to be a change in attitude about weaving. Navajo people lived in Hogans with hard dirt floors covered by animal skins. Why would they even consider placing a beautiful handwoven blanket on the ground to walk on? It didn’t make sense. So, some traders who had convinced weavers to make their creations out of heavier spun wool began to put them on the floors of their posts and, as in the case of J.L. Hubbell at Ganado, in their homes.
Weavers were encouraged to use commercial dyes and spin their yarn tighter to hold up for floor use. It turned out to be an interesting challenge for most weavers. I liken it to a painter who has always done impressionist oil paintings being asked to create a realistic image. Artists have their unique brush strokes and weavers have their unique spinning and weaving styles. That didn’t change overnight.
Many transitional weavings were made using the traditional stripe patterns of the old weaving blankets. Others emulated Hispanic weavings with diamond patterns in the center. Others were guided by the traders, including J.B. Moore at Crystal who published a catalog with patterns that he had control over designing.
Transitional weavings generally were woven with a softer feel, like a blanket. The early patterned weavings were not always geometrically perfect, but they all have character. As time went on, the patterns became more precise, the yarns became tighter and more uniformly spun, and the colors became more consistent. This period lasted from approximately 1885 through 1910.
During this same period commercial yarns, usually referred to as “Germantown” were introduced on the reservation. While there is some tendency to include these in the Transitional category, they are really in a league by themselves, although weavings done with this wool might very well have influenced the designs sometimes seen in Transitional pieces.
One of the favorite Transitional weavings we have in the gallery is a beautiful white background weaving with a small center diamond of aniline dye red and natural wool brown. That center diamond is surrounded by diamond-shaped outlines of brown will with “fingers” of brown coming off the central diamond pattern.
The white area of the weaving is not perfect. There are portions where there was a small amount of brown wool that was mixed in. This happened a lot in the early years of the transitional weavings which makes sense. These women were often carding the wool by fire or candlelight in their hogans. Light brown and white tend to look a lot alike in the dark!
The pattern on this weaving is off-center to one end and the lines are not completely straight or uniform in thickness. It was never walked on and has the loose fibers of the wool covering the blanket like a soft beard. Most transitional pieces have been walked on and the threads have been worn off. Today, most weavers either shave the loose fibers or burn them off with a hot iron.
This is a beautiful, soft transitional that has a unique unrefined look that I really like.I can remember my father telling a potential customer when they were looking at a weaving that had a lot of fuzz on it that, “This will be a beautiful rug if you walk on it for about ten years and wear the fuzz off!”
He had a flair for salesmanship!