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For The Home

Navajo Weavings

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: March, 2013, Page 42
Photos by David B. Moore

These Navajo weavings are from Jo Taulbee Flittie’s personal collection. Pictured from left are a multicolored Ganado (circa 1930); a tan and cream Red Mesa (circa 1920); a light-grey Ganado (circa 1930); and a dark-grey Germantown (circa 1890).

history, Highlights and helpful Hints

The more you know about Navajo weavings, the more you want them not from a materialistic standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint,” states Terry DeWald, Tucson dealer and collector. “You develop a love for the culture and objects associated with the culture that resounds inside you.”

Navajo legend has it that Spider Woman taught Navajo women how to weave on a loom that Spider Man taught them to make. Historians, however, will tell you the Pueblo Indians introduced weaving to the Navajo sometime in the early 1700s. For more than 300 years, the Navajo have, through their weavings, helped tell the story of their culture and the Southwest.

“Navajo weavings are so much a part of the heritage of the West,” says DeWald, owner of Terry DeWald American Indian Art. “They’re just a part of our architecture.”

“I think they are magical. Each one has a story to tell,” remarks Jo Taulbee Flittie, a Paradise Valley, Ariz., interior designer and collector. She displays her collection in rotation throughout her home, as wall hangings, rugs, sofa covers, or simply stacked on chairs. “They add beauty and bring the history of the Southwest into a home. It’s hard to believe these rugs were created by human beings. They are absolute works of art.”

This Navajo weaving from Jo Taulbee Flittie’s collection is a transitional piece from 1890, which is when weavings began to transition from blankets to rugs.
For the weaver, weaving is an integral part of the Navajo culture, a traditional art that initially was used to create utilitarian items, like blankets and clothing. It later served as a way to provide for their families, first by trading for horses and food staples, and later by selling them to trading posts or wholesalers, or directly to collectors at annual markets in Phoenix, Tucson and Santa Fe.

For weaver Barbara Ornelas, a 1997 Phoenix Home & Garden Master of the Southwest, what began as a bit of a drag when she was 10 evolved into a way to put her husband and two children through school. Now, it’s a way of life.“It’s who I am,” comments Ornelas. “Weaving gives me my balance; it gives me my purpose in life. It’s what I was born to do.”

Ornelas averages eight to 12 hours a day at one of her 50 looms and still spins her wool on a Navajo spindle as she was taught while growing up behind the Two Grey Hills Trading Post in New Mexico.

“One of the things I suggest people do when they’re learning to appreciate Navajo textiles is to first look at a loom to get a sense of how a textile is constructed,” says Ann E. Marshall, Ph.D., vice president, curation and education at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. “That opens the door to much more understanding. Knowing what goes into taking something from raw material to finished product is just so important.”

In this case, the raw material is wool. Once it is shorn and cleaned, a weaver will card, spin and dye it. Then the weaving begins on a freestanding, upright loom. Typically, Navajo weavers use a single warp, or vertical yarn, looping it over and over for sometimes hundreds of yards to form the base of the weaving. Wefts, or horizontal yarns, are then woven in and out, over and under, one row at a time.

“When you realize that the piece is woven by moving wefts horizontally across the warp, you can look at a piece just along a single horizontal line and see how many times that weaver changed colors of yarn,” Marshall explains. “Weavers are, in a sense, painting a picture with a very inflexible medium. Think of a curved line: When you’re painting, it is a simple gesture, but when you’re weaving a curved line, you have to be building that line up gradually with very closely set warps and finely spun wefts. It becomes much more complex.”

This red bird pictorial weaving from 1930 is also from Flittie’s collection.
Over the centuries, three distinct types of Navajo weavings have emerged: blankets, transitionals and rugs. “The wearing blankets were woven for the Navajos’ own use up to about the time of their incarceration in the 1860s and 1870s,” says DeWald. “The transitionals were the phase from the blankets to the rugs, which went from about 1890 to 1910. Then, after the turn of the last century, Navajo rugs started being produced.”

The designs on wearing blankets, also called Chief’s Blankets, evolved over time and are now generally classified in three phases, evolving from simple broad bands of black and white in First Phase blankets, to the addition of rectangles and, later triangles and diamonds on Second and Third Phase blankets, respectively. Some scholars and historians recognize a Fourth Phase of Chief’s Blankets marked by prominent foreground designs.

“The blankets didn’t have borders,” DeWald points out. “So, when the blanket was worn, it formed a complete pattern in front, and there was usually an exact image, or a variance of the image, down the back. Thus, you’d be walking with this beautiful weaving on.

“Some of the older blankets come out of estates, galleries and auctions, but most of them are in museums,” DeWald continues. “They’re just so darn hard to find; a lot of times, they were worn so heavily they’re nothing but rags now, or the Indians were killed while wearing them and the blankets perished that way.”

Weavings from the transitional period represent the move from weaving blankets to rugs, and reflect the growing influence of the changing world beyond the Navajos’ native land. Although it was a time of ugliness, a time of slaughter and incarceration, the late 1800s also brought commercially made materials to the Navajo, exposed weavers to new design influences and increased awareness of the weavers’ exceptional skills. The U.S. government and traders who moved onto Navajo land supplied weavers with factory-spun and -dyed yarn from mills in Saxony, England, and Germantown, Pennsylvania. These resulting Eye Dazzlers weren’t quite blankets, but they weren’t quite rugs yet, either. They were brightly colored and highly patterned, however, and are now prized by collectors.

Around the turn of the century, traders who had established trading posts on the Navajo reservation saw the potential of selling woven rugs as souvenirs to folks exploring the ever-expanding West. They were right. Demand for Navajo rugs soared. During this time, distinct regional styles emerged as traders encouraged weavers to use specific colors and patterns. Some of the styles are named for the trading post that encouraged its production; others are named for the geographical location from which they emerged. Rug styles include: Teec Nos Pos, Two Grey Hills, Burntwater, Ganado, Chinle, Crystal, Wide Ruins, Yei, Klagetoh, Yeibachai, and Bisti. But there’s more to Navajo weaving beyond basic design chronology and historical facts.

Photo on right by Craig Smith

From left: The Flittie collection includes this 1915 Crystal/Storm weaving that features four zigzag lightning symbols. • This Chief-style woman’s blanket was made with red dye derived from the cochineal insect. The Second Phase weaving is from the Heard Museum in Phoenix and is circa 1870.
“There’s an emotional part of Navajo weaving,” Ornelas says. “The weavers put a lot of their spirit and a lot of their soul into their work, and our weavings reflect that. We tell collectors that these weavings are our babies. We create them. When you first set up a warp, it’s like giving birth to a child, and as you’re weaving, it’s like watching your child grow. Then, when you’re done, you try to find nice places for them to be, nice safe homes where they’re loved and appreciated.” 

What to Look For
There’s no question that buying a Navajo weaving is an investment. Before making a purchase, Marshall recommends reviewing the wealth of literature on the subject and visiting a gallery or museum gift shop that sells contemporary weavings to get a feel for the textiles—literally. “It’s really so important to be able to actually touch a weaving and get a sense of how tightly woven it is,” she says. “Look for symmetry and even edges, and for certain kinds of designs; you’re looking for both symmetry and complexity.” It’s important, too, to develop your eye by viewing as many textiles as possible, she adds.

Both the Heard Museum in Phoenix and Arizona State Museum in Tucson typically display weavings across a range of styles and time periods. “This will give you a sense of how weavings have changed over the years and will help you learn what appeals to you.” Attending the various Indian markets in the Southwest also provides the unique experience of speaking directly to the weavers, something collectors of contemporary textiles treasure, according to Marshall.

From left: This Eastern Reservation weaving (circa 1920) is from the personal collection of Jo Taulbee Flittie. • This Storm Pattern blanket from the Heard Museum is said to have been collected by a Mormon family in Utah around 1870. The cross design is seen on historic Navajo baskets as well as textiles, and is referred to in textile literature as Spider Woman’s cross. The squares in the four corners represent the Navajos’ four sacred mountains.
Ornelas says she does enjoy speaking with collectors, and through this, she has learned that becoming educated about weaving is only part of the story.

“I truly believe that our pieces have a living spirit in them; that our pieces choose the people they want to go home with,” Ornelas explains. “I hear all the time from collectors and buyers that a certain weaving outshone all the others they were looking at. I say, ‘That weaving chose you to go home with because you were supposed to be together. That weaving was made to be with you.’”

Where to Buy
Heard Museum, Phoenix; Arizona State Museum, Tucson; John C. Hill Antique Indian Art, Scottsdale; Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery, Tucson and Santa Fe; Garland’s Navajo Rugs, Sedona, Ariz.

Indian Markets:
February 23 and 24, 2013—20th Annual Southwest Indian Art Fair, Arizona State Museum, Tucson,
March 2 and 3, 2013—55th Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market,Heard Museum, Phoenix,
August 12-18, 2013—Santa Fe Indian Market, downtown Santa Fe,
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