History of Navajo Weaving

A Brief History of Navajo Weaving

Navajo origin legends have it that the first loom was designed and built by Spider Man and that the weaving technique was taught to the people by Spider Woman.

To understand Navajo weaving, you have to understand the Navajo loom.  Similar to the early Pueblo upright loom, the Navajo loom has a continuous circular warping which creates a defined pallet for the weaver to fill.  This loom is easily dismantled and suited the Navajo semi-nomadic life.  Many Puebloans, seeking refuge amongst the Navajo from the Spanish reconquest following the Pueblo revolt of 1680, may have brought some of their weaving techniques with them.  However, unlike their Pueblo neighbors, weaving among the Navajo was a woman's responsibility.  

Originally weaving in cotton, the Navajo were not shy about "liberating" sheep from the Spanish settlements and wool soon became the preferred textile medium.  By the early 1800s, the Navajo were recognized as the premier weavers of the southwest and the products of their looms were traded to the Spanish, the Pueblo peoples, as well as the Utes and the Great Plains tribes.  

In the early 19th century, the Navajo loom product was typically a plain striped design in natural wool colors.  By mid century textiles sometimes incorporated home dyed indigo and red from raveled trade cloth.  Classic square and stepped elements became incased with the bands.  Following their captivity at Bosque Redondo, a design evolution broke these elements free of the bands to become visual central images.  

Raiding and slaving were practiced by the Navajo, the Spanish and even the Puebloans.  However, following the Mexican American War of 1846, the conquering United States Army felt that the "wild" Indians needed to be brought under control.  The Army, under command of Kit Carson, was dispatched in 1863 to round up the Navajo and force march them to internment at Bosque Redondo in New Mexico, some 300 miles away from their homeland.  The four year captivity, while extremely harsh, brought different design exposures.  Euro-American clothing was introduced and Rio Grande blankets were distributed with their post-Saltillo elements.  

Upon their return to their homeland in 1868, annual annuities from the United States government and newly established trading posts further introduced the Navajo to Euro-American manufactured articles and the need for home blanket production was disappearing.  Up until the early 20th century, Navajo weaving production continued for clothing and utilitarian purposes.  Excess weaving were used for trade. 

Aniline dyes were discovered in England in 1856 by a chemist, William Perkin, while looking for a synthetic quinine as a cure for malaria.  He noticed the residue from his experiments left an intense purple (Mauvine) color on his work clothes.  Naturally he gave up on the malaria research and opened a dye factory becoming rich and famous in the process.  Other aniline colors followed upon Perkin's research and rapidly spread around the world.  These dyes were far superior and much less expensive then the insect (cohineal and lac), plant and mineral dyes in use at the time.  

Brightly colored yarns first reached the Navajo region somewhere around the 1860s in the form of a 4 ply yarn manufactured in in Germantown, Pennsylvania.  These yarns were very expensive and were only available to the best weavers.  Finally in the mid 1880s, aniline dye became available from companies such as Diamond Dyes in a powder form boxed with a mordant to set the dye to wool.  Thus the weaver was able to utilize her own sheep, shearing, carding, spinning and weaving from her own animals.  

At the dawn of the 20th century, various traders on the Navajo reservation did not want to see this skillful indigenous art form disappear.  To create a market for the unique Navajo weaving product, many traders on the reservation worked with their local weavers to produce new styles of textiles and thus the "Navajo Rug" was born.  

As a consequence of this weaver/trader design partnership, local regional styles sprang up around the various trading posts.  By the beginning of the 20th Century Trading Post Era, regional Navajo designed rugs were supplying a new country wide demand for quality textiles.  The tourism market spawned by the railroads of the 1880s created an outlet for small Navajo weavings and other such South Western Indian crafts.  

Today weaver are no longer restricted to selling their product to the local trader and can create whatever design they prefer and easily travel from buyer to buyer to get the best prices for their textiles.  Weaving remains a respected art form amongst the Navajo people and throughout the United States.