Spider Woman’s Gift
The Weavings of the Navajo
"Dineh"—"The People," as the Navajo call
themselves, migrated south from Canada to northern New Mexico about
1300 A.D. Although they were a nomadic people, they adopted the
agricultural practices of the Pueblo Indians already settled in
Navajo legend says "The People" were taught to weave by
Spider Woman. Actually, the Navajo women probably learned the art
from the Pueblo men they married during the latter part of the 17th
century. Pueblo men were traditionally the weavers in their sedentary
culture; but among the nomadic Navajo, the task of weaving fell
more naturally to the women.
The tools and techniques used by the Navajo in the 17th century
are virtually the same as those used today. Upright looms are made
of logs, set into the desert ground, and lashed together. Smaller
pieces of wood serve as beams, battens, heddles, shed rods, tension
bars, and weaving forks.
The vertical thread, or “warp,” is put on the loom in
the shape of a figure eight with a continuous length of yarn. After
the loom is warped, the weaver sits on the ground in front of the
loom and weaves from the bottom up. Because the looms are so wide,
Navajo women developed a technique for building up small sections
of particular colors and patterns rather than weaving entire unbroken
rows of horizontal thread, or “weft.” Navajo weaving
is noted for its density—wefts are packed together so tightly
the warp yarn is not visible.
Wool, with its long, straight fibers, was easily cleaned, carded,
and spun by the Navajo. The wool was cleaned by simply shaking or
beating it against desert rocks and picking out any twigs, or by
washing it in yucca-root suds. Carding with thistle-toothed carding
paddles, or combs, introduced by the Spanish, completed the cleaning
process. (Modern carding paddles are metal-toothed.) Fibers were
spun with a hand spindle consisting of a spinning stick and whorl
anchored to the ground. Colors in early Navajo blankets were the
natural grays and beiges of the sheep. Later, dyes made from natural
plants and minerals added yellow, blue, and greenish grays. Red
was added by using yarns unraveled from cloth obtained from the
Navajo blankets of the mid-17th century to mid-19th century, now
known as Classic Period blankets, were prized by Indians and Spanish
alike for their high quality and dense weaving which offered protection
from cold, wind, and rain. Navajo men and women wore their blankets
wrapped around their bodies in various ways. Blankets were used
for sitting on the desert floor and sleeping at night. They were
also hung in hogan doors to keep out winds, animals, and possible
After the Southwest became part of the United States in 1848, a
number of treaties with the Navajo were made and broken. Eventually
eight thousand Navajo men, women, and children made the “Long
Walk” to internment at Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner in
eastern New Mexico. All aspects of Navajo culture, including their
weaving, were profoundly affected by those five traumatic years
The period spanning the mid-l860s to the mid-1890s is often called
the Transition Period. Probably the most fundamental change in Navajo
weaving was the result of the introduction of large quantities of
commercial Germantown yarns and cotton string. The immensely varied
and brilliantly colored yarns led the weavers to creative experimentation
once again. The most dramatic results were the explosive and many-colored
"eye-dazzlers," which were initially disliked for their
lack of subtlety by early 20th-century traders and buyers, but have
found a more receptive market in the past two decades.
By the end of the 19th century, Navajo weaving was a commercial
enterprise. The all-important middlemen between the Navajo and their
clients were the hardy souls who operated isolated trading posts
in the Navajo country beginning in the 1870s. Early traders like
Juan Lorenzo Hubbell in the Ganado area were respected by the Navajos
and visiting Anglo-Americans alike. After his death in 1930, Hubbell’s
trading post continued under the direction of his son Roman. The
famous trading post is now operated by the National Park Service
as a historic monument and remains active to this day.
The traders were also instrumental in a radical change to Navajo
weaving that quite possibly saved it from extinction. In place of
the blankets, weavers were encouraged to produce rugs of heavier
yarns, which were in greater demand by the Anglo-American market.
The Modern Period of Navajo weaving, dominated by what were originally
trader-influenced rug designs for the Anglo-American market, has
continued from the turn of the century to the present day. The regional
styles of rugs that developed in the early days continue to be woven
and sought after by collectors. Thanks to the efforts of certain
patrons in the earlier part of the century, notably Mary Cabot Wheelwright,
the quality of yarns has also improved, and the use of natural vegetal
dyes has experienced a strong revival. With access to modern transportation,
Navajo weavers have become less dependent upon traders. They weave
designs from any region they choose and continue to make innovations
within these styles.
beautiful Navajo Rugs Poster is available at www.crizmac.com for
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Adapted from the poster series titled questionArte
by Marilyn Stewart PhD, published by CRIZMAC (Item # 1000 $62.00)
In what ways do Navajo weavings tell us about the time and
place in which they were made?
• Does the design of the work suggest something about its
• Do the materials and techniques suggest something about
the place in which the work was made?
• Is the artwork similar to artworks made by others who lived
in this place?
• What meaning or importance did the work have to people who
saw or used it when it was made? Did the people think the artists
were special people?
• What evidence do you have to help you think about what the
artwork meant to the people of the time?
From the Teacher’s Guide of questionArte
“Talking about particular works of art, as well as about art
in general, can be the most satisfying activity associated with
learning about art and art-makers. Students gain new insights as
they examine and investigate works of art and offer possible interpretations
about meaning. Students learn from each other in the process of
discussing important questions about art. They learn about their
own art-making as they consider what they have accomplished through