Back in the 1930's Sallie Wagner Lippincott and her husband, Bill, purchased the Wide Ruins Trading Post in Arizona. She was a young, dynamic woman who truly loved the Navajo people she worked with. But there was one thing she didn't like about how things were going at the trading post.
Her niece, Firth Waldon, told me that Sallie did not like the quality of the weaving by the women at Wide Ruins.
"She told the women that for the next two years, she would buy any rug they made, but after that, they had to meet her quality standards, and they had to be vegetal dyed," said Firth.
That was quite a change. Many people don't know that most Navajo weavings made after the 1880s were colored with aniline dyes. A few weavers used Rabbit Brush or other plants, but the old indigo and cochineal dyes were long gone by the 1930s.
It was a challenge, but the weavers took it on. They shared and experimented with different plants, resulting in the Wide Ruins style of weaving, one of the most popular evolutions in Navajo weaving from the 1940s through the 1980s. The development of vegetal dye weaving spread to the Crystal and Burntwater trading posts and was incorporated into weaving across the reservation.
In the 1950s, Mabel Burnside Myers ( 1922-1987) from Pine Springs contributed to vegetal dye weaving. This woman, a weaver and herbalist, created a "Dye Chart" showing the sources of different dyes as a tool for teaching young weavers. She and her family later began to make the dye charts for the tourist market and, as awareness of the charts grew, for collectors.
They ranged from small charts with as few as six plants to large ones with nearly 100 plants. In the middle of the chart was a small Navajo weaving with threads going from each color to the plant they were dyed with. Her charts are part of many museum collections, including the Navajo Nation Museum and the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.
We used to sell Mabel's dye charts, and after she passed, we started working with Ella Myers. In addition to selling her dye charts, we published a poster of one of the charts and sold thousands of them. Other people, including the Los Angeles Country Museum of Natural History, had published posters with her charts, but Antonia and I were shocked to find we were the first to pay her royalties for the sales. Unfortunately, we could no longer distribute the Dye Chart poster when we sold the publishing business.
Today, we work with Mable's granddaughter, Melissa Myers, who learned from her grandmother. She does a beautiful job and is dedicated to continuing to create the family's work. Other artists on the Navajo reservation make these charts, including Roselyn Washburn, who works with John McCulloch at Teec Nos Pos Trading Post.
One of Roselyn's dye charts is part of an online and live exhibition, Shaped by the Loom, Weaving Worlds of the American Southwest, based around the weaving collection of the American Museum of Natural History. The show is currently in New York City and will move to Cooperstown, NY, and then to Washington, DC.
But the online exhibition is up now, and Dr. Hadley Jensen, the curator, had a great idea you would enjoy playing with. She linked Roselyn's dye chart to recipes that tell how vegetal dyes are made from plants. There is also a whole section on dyeing and coloring yarn.
You can also access the whole exhibit from this page, including panoramic photography of the Navajo Reservation, interviews with traders and weavers, and hundreds of amazing weavings in the Museum collection.
We sell a lot of Melissa's Dye Charts, so if the ones we are featuring today are sold out, call or email us, and we will put you on a list for the next group she brings in. We are proud to represent the third generation of the Myers family chart makers by offering her work for your enjoyment.