Navajo Textiles

The People

The Navajo call themselves Diné, or, "the people," and although it is difficult to picture the Southwest without them, they are relative newcomers to the area when compared to the Pueblo people. Their ancestors were among a wave of Athapaskan-speakers who swept into the region from the north, perhaps only a little more than 500 years ago. They were hunters and gatherers, but as they settled into the general region of what is today New Mexico and Arizona, they borrowed many cultural elements, including the farming of corn, from their Pueblo neighbors. When the Spaniards came to the Southwest in the 16th century, bringing sheep and horses, the Navajo also quickly took up herding and developed a semi-nomadic, pastoral lifestyle. Today the Navajo have a reservation of more than 16 million acres located in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

The Textiles  

Textile weaving is the art form for which the Navajo are best known. They use a vertical frame loom, as pictured above, that is constructed so as to produce a four-selvaged textile. This type of loom, along with the backstrap loom and domesticated cotton for yarn, diffused into the Southwest from Mexico in prehistoric times. By the late 17th century, if not earlier, the Navajo had acquired the techniques and materials for weaving from their Pueblo neighbors, and by the early 18th century, the Navajo were weaving with wool from the Spanish sheep they were acquiring in increasing numbers. Today, as in the past, a textile woven in the traditional manner will be made from wools that are handspun with a wooden spindle and whorl and dyed with natural vegetal colors.

Navajo textiles have an interesting and colorful history that reflects the culture history of the Navajo people. Prior to the 1860s, Navajo women wove clothing primarily for their own families, including wearing blankets and items such as saddle blankets. The textile you see on the left is an example of the old style woman's dress, which was made of two rectangles of cloth (48" x 23"), sewn together at the shoulders and belted with a sash at the waist. By the late 19th century, western styles of clothing had been adopted, and the "new style" of woman's dress became the gathered skirt and blouse of velveteen, satin, or calico, which is still worn today. Blankets continue to be woven for both personal use and trade. The Third Phase Chief's Blanket pictured on the upper right (67" x 54") is an example of a late 19th century shoulder blanket. During the early 1900s the trade blankets were marketed as rugs through the United States by trading post operators, such as John Lorenzo Hubbell and J.B. Moore. This "rug period" saw the development on the reservation of a number of regional styles of weaving. The textile to the right is from Moore's trading post at Crystal Springs (57 1/2" x 37 3/4").Within the past fifty years, rugs have given way to "art," and although textiles might still be woven large enough to be used as rugs or blankets, most are bought and used as decorative art. Below are some examples of various styles of Navajo textiles.

In the latter half of the 19th century weavers were introduced to aniline dyes of bright colors and aniline-dyed, machine-made yarns (such as Germantown). They soon began making colorful textiles with busy, complex designs of zigzags and diamond shapes with serrated edges. These textiles quickly became known as "eyedazzlers." Examples like the one on the left (30" x 28 3/4") continue to be made today. The textile on the right (55" x 32") is known as a Ganado, a style that became popular during the "rug period" early this century. Ganados were first made in the area around the Hubbell Trading Post. Still made today, the Ganados usually have a red background with designs in gray, black, and white, and a black or dark border.

Another popular contemporary style is the Two Gray Hills at the right (45 1/2" x 40"). It shows the natural wool colors typical of this regional style, and in one corner can be seen an "escape line" or "spirit trail," a light gray yarn that runs from the design through the dark border. Weavers say they sometimes are so caught up in their work that their spirit may be trapped within it. The escape line is a symbolic way to leave the textile once it has been completed.

On the left is a Wide Ruins textile (63" x 45"). This style has horizontal bands of various widths, some with geometric designs within them. The colors -- brown, mustard, reddish-brown -- are from vegetal dyes. The white and gray are natural sheep's wool. The lovely Yei (pronounced "yay") weaving on the right (52" x 32") has similar natural colors, but Yei textiles often include many additional colors, including those from aniline dyes. The Yei are the "Holy People" of the Navajo, and the designs on these textiles are derived in part from the drypaintings (sandpaintings) created during important ceremonies. On this textile are four central figures typified by their elongated bodies, with three corn plants in the middle. A rainbow Yei wraps his body all around three sides, with the head in the upper right and the feet in the upper left of the textile.