Navajo Indian Knitting And Weaving

Navajo indian knitting and weaving is a fine art.The Navajo people originally learned weaving from neighboring Pueblo Indians, and with a little help from non-Indians, made it into the great art it is today.

A Navajo legend credits a deity named Spider Woman with teaching them weaving. The first loom was said to be of sky and earth cords with tools of sunlight, lightning, white shell, and crystal. In reality, Pueblo Indians taught the Navajos how to weave.

The Pueblo people of Northern New Mexico were cultivating cotton around 1300 AD, which they used for weaving. They practiced finger weaving, and had also learned the use of the backstrap loom from Mexican Indian tribes. Weaving was a man's activity in most pueblos. They wove in the kiva, or ceremonial room, a cramped space that inspired the invention of the upright loom. The arrival of the Spaniards and their Churro sheep in the 16th century led to a change from cotton to wool as weaving material for the Pueblo Indians as well as the Navajos, who learned the technique from their neighbors in the late 1600s. The Spanish also introduced indigo (blue) dye and simple stripe patterning.

The Pueblo rebellion in 1680 interrupted Spanish influence on the lives of local Indians, but after the Reconquista (Reconquest) in 1692, weaving continued to evolve, with a greater variety of designs. The plain tapestry technique, in which vertical warp threads were covered by beating down the entwined wefts to compress them, was popular around the time that Pueblo Indians taught weaving to the Navajos. Other styles used were herringbone, diamond, and diagonal twills. Dresses, shoulder blankets, saddle blankets, door hangings, shirts, kilts, hair ties, belts, and blankets were woven in wool at this time.

By the end of the 1700s, Navajo weaving, which had become a woman's activity, began diverging in its style from that of the Pueblo Indians. Navajo weavers learned a "pause" technique that caused "lazy lines"--diagonal lines across the horizontal wefts. Soon weavers were using this technique to create terraced lines and discrete design elements. They also used more color than Pueblo weavers. Designs included stepped triangles and stripes.

The earliest known Navajo weaving still in existence is the 1804 "Massacre Cave Blanket" from Canyon de Chelly. It is of wool, with natural dyes of brown and beige on white. This blanket marks the beginning of the so-called Classic Period of Navajo weaving.

The Classic Period was characterized by blankets for wearing that were warm, soft, tightly woven, and light. They were called "Chiefs' Blankets," and were given as gifts to other Indian leaders and to American military and political authorities.

The popularity of blankets increased in the 19th century. Navajo trading partners included the Utes, Apaches, Comanches, and Pueblo Indians until the arrival of the railroad in 1880. Commercially woven fabric replaced the hand-loomed variety for clothing. Weaving became more decorative, using English baize and unraveled wool from other sources in bright colors from commercial dyes. The Navajos also traded with the Spanish in New Mexico, and through them with Mexico and Europe. Saxony yarn from Europe was popular. Navajo weavers used wool dyed with native, natural dyes.

Mexico ceded the Southwest to the United States in 1848, along with what was called the "Navajo Problem", a chronic conflict of interests between the non-Indian and the nomadic Navajo. Kit Carson led a "Scorched Earth" campaign in 1863 that ended with 8,000 Navajos surrendering. They were then force marched to a dry, barren reservation called Bosque Redondo, at Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico.

The Navajos were incarcerated at Bosque Redondo with insufficient food, water, and supplies for five years. To compensate for their lost flocks, the government paid them annuities that included cotton string, commercial, natural and aniline-dyed yarns, and manufactured cloth, clothing, and blankets. Four thousand Spanish-made blankets were also distributed to the Navajos. The yarns and cloth they were given and the influence of the Spanish Saltillo serape designs probably had a lot to do with the change in weaving patterns during these difficult years, from stripes and terraced patterns to the serrate or diamond style. But the techniques of weaving remained the same. Wool was carded with toothed paddles, spun on disc whorl spindles, and woven on an upright loom.

In 1868, Navajos were freed to return to their land. But in the intervening years of imprisonment, they had come to rely on the products of American civilization. Through the sale of weavings, their economic system changed from barter to cash. Manufactured Pendleton blankets replaced hand-woven mantas and shoulder blankets. By the 1890s, there was little need for woven products within Navajo society.

The railroad reached Gallup, New Mexico in 1882, closing the American Frontier and establishing a link between the Navajos and the non-Indian market. Government traders who ran trading posts on the new Navajo reservation served as the middlemen. A nationwide interest in collecting American Indian art began, easy to satisfy because the railroad made travel possible for tourists. Traders encouraged good craftsmanship by paying higher prices for weavings they deemed more appealing to non-lndian buyers. Indian blankets were sold as floor rugs, bedspreads, and wall hangings. This new market gave a boost to Navajo textile arts.

The resurrection of weaving and its tremendous growth at the turn of the century was aided by two traders, Hubble and Moore. Both were visionaries who stressed quality and helped develop the designs that the Eastern U.S. considered fashionable. Oriental rug motifs were suited to the Navajo weaver's concept of design, and Moore and Hubble helped incorporate these patterns in Navajo weaving. They commissioned artists to paint rug patterns as samples. Moore even published a catalog for mail order use by collectors from the Eastern U.S.

Both men had followers who modified their basic patterns as they established new trading posts, and local Navajos modified these patterns further. Certain patterns became associated with specific posts. The first general collector field for Navajo weaving was the regionally or geographically identified rug.

Costly Germantown yarn was introduced in the 1880s. Its bright colors led to a new style called the "Eye Dazzler," quite different from the conservative "Chief's Pattern". Reds, greens, yellows, blues, and other colors were used in Eye Dazzler blankets and wall hangings. Aniline dyes sold by the trading posts came in a greater variety of colors and were easier to use than natural dyes. Germantown weavings were done well into the 20th century by the better weavers.

In the late 19th century the U.S. government, hoping to increase meat production in the Navajo tribe, introduced the French Rambouillet sheep. Its wool was too short and too oily for quality weaving, and the rugs were coarse and heavy and looked dirty because of the oil. The quality of rugs declined, and traders, to stimulate production, started to buy rugs by the pound. The weaver would produce a rug in record time, leaving the wool as oily as possible and even pounding dirt into it to increase its weight. But the demands for high quality rugs and the contributions of several farsighted people helped revive the weaving industry and eliminate the "pound rug." Then in 1934, the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed a breed of sheep combining the meat producing qualities of French sheep with the better wool qualities of other breeds.

During the 30s, research and experimentation with various dyes, including natural dyes made from berries, bark, roots, and flowers, as well as vegetable and vegetable-toned chemical dyes, resulted in softer pastel shades. A new design was introduced, with patterns set in bands on a borderless rug.

Most of the nineteenth and twentieth-century styles of blankets and rugs are still woven, and new styles continue to appear. About 25% of all rugs are regional, with 40% classified as "General." The blending of regional patterns and colors have produced some of the most valuable and award-winning "general" patterns that exist today.

Although the cost of a Navajo weaving is high, the amount of time and talent involved in weaving a rug still makes the art expensive to practice. The weaver must be highly skilled, because she does not use a preliminary sketch. A 3 x 5' rug takes about 350 hours of work if wool and yarn preparation is involved, and even longer if plant and mineral dyes are prepared and used. For this reason, weaving has become highly selective and competitive. There are fewer weavers now, but the quality is better. Navajo weaving is recognized as a major art form, and is highly acclaimed even in Europe and Asia.

The Navajos now have control of their own arts and crafts marketing, and rug weavers are free to take inspiration from wherever they find it. Easier travel and communication means that patterns traditionally associated with specific locations can be learned by weavers all over the reservation. In addition to the art of rug-weaving, the Navajo Nation has a mill and a factory that produces inexpensive wearing blankets.

Some of the well-known Navajo rug and blanket styles are as follows.

Yei (rectangular god figures) and Yeibachai (human dancers dressed as Yei) ceremonial rugs portray tall, thin religious figures with stylized arms and legs, but have no true religious significance. They are woven with commercially dyed yarn, and some mimic ceremonial sand paintings. They are very popular with tourists. "Ceremonial" is only a commercial category for a certain design, and has no religious significance.

Teec Nos Pos is a bright, complex Persian-style rug with a wide, figured border and intricate geometric designs, usually of commercially dyed wool.

Two Grey Hills is a complex design created in the 20th century after local weavers resisted an attempt by a trader from another area to introduce bright commercial colors. It uses a blend of commercial and natural black and brown, gray and white with a dark border and strong geometric designs within the border. It looks more like a tapestry than a floor covering.

Tree of Life is a blanket design mechanically woven by the commercial but high-quality blanket-maker Pendleton, and also used on many contemporary Navajo pictorial rugs.

The Crystal rug is borderless, with bands of vegetal dye colors made by the "wavy line" technique, using alternating strands of different colors. Other decorations, such as arrows, feathers, and geometric figures, are woven within the bands.

The Gallup rug or saddle blanket is the most practical. It has a heavy weave with angular motifs.

The so-called Specialty rug is characterized by pictorials, double weaves, and storm patterns.

Other regional styles are available in trading posts in the larger towns of New Mexico like Shiprock, Gallup, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.

Following Navajo tradition, in order to allow the good spirits of the blanket to escape and permit the weaver to make another good blanket, many blankets have borders with a chinde (spirit trail), a single color strand from the interior design leading to the outside.

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