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The 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 the area.

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 Spanish.

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 wandering spirits.


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 in exile.

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.

 

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Discussion Questions:
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 origins?

• 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 their efforts.