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Navajo Weaving: Tools & Techniques

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Navajo rugs and blankets were historically vital to the Navajo economy and have been sought-after items for over 150 years. How did a culture create such beautiful weaving without the use of modern weaving machinery? This lesson will discuss the tools and techniques of Navajo weaving.

History

It is unknown how the Navajo learned to weave. Some experts believe they learned it from the Pueblo Indians as the Navajo moved into the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States around 1000 AD. Others argue that the Navajo didn't weave until the 1800s. Either way, Spanish records show that the Navajo have herded sheep and woven wool blankets since at least the late 1800s.

Originally Navajo weaving was done to produce clothing. Later, as trade with outsiders became increasingly necessary, woven Navajo blankets were produced as trade items. Few examples of early 18th century weaving exist today. Some of the most important examples are remnants of textiles found in Massacre Cave at Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. It is believed that a group of Navajo were killed there as they sought shelter from Spanish soldiers. Because of Navajo taboos those remnants were untouched until a trader, Sam Day, recovered the textiles over a hundred years later. These pieces of Navajo blankets gave insight into the designs that were woven into the fabrics.

Navajo Wool

Until the 1880s most of the existing Navajo weavings were blankets, and in the mid-1800s a woven Navajo blanket sold for 50 dollars' worth of gold. As the railroad crept across the United States the market for Navajo weaving expanded. Needless to say, the Navajo had to increase production of wool for this market increase and, in many cases, purchase wool from outside sources to make up the deficit.

The wool for Navajo weaving came from the Iberian Churra, a sheep that they acquired from the Spanish Explorers. The sheep evolved into the Navajo-Churra, a species that was well-suited to the hot, dry climate of the southwestern United States. This kind of sheep produced long-stapled wool that was well-suited to the weaving process.

Early Navajo wool had natural colorations: brown, white, black, green, yellow, and gray. Most of these colors were made from native plants. Black dye was made with pinon pitch and ashes. Some dyes, like indigo and red, were obtained through trades. Red, the most difficult dye to get, was made using cochineal, an extract from a particular type of Mesoamerican beetle.

Drawing of Navajo weavers
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Tools and Techniques

After the wool is sheared it is carded and combed, a process that straightens and aligns the wool fibers and reduces tangles. Then it is spun into thread using a spindle, a long stick with a cupped end that is turned to twist the fibers as they are combined. Making the yarn is a very long process as the wool fibers need to be spun multiple times in order for the yarn to be fine enough to use for weaving. After the yarn is produced it is dyed with either plant-based or purchased dye. When the dye is set and the wool yarn dry, the weaving can begin.

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