Posted by R. John Howe on 09-08-2003 08:56 PM:

TM Exhibition: Navajo Blankets of the 19th Century, 9/5/03-4/14/04

Dear folks –

Saturday, September 5, an exhibition at The Textile Museum entitled “Navajo Blankets of the 19th Century” opened.

I was able to attend one of the “walk-throughs” of this exhibition with its guest curator, Ann Hedlund, a cultural anthropologist, who is at Arizona State University, in Tucson, AZ.

This is a small exhibition: about 20 pieces or so in total. It is displayed in three of the TM’s smaller galleries.

These weavings are classified by scholars as follows:

The blankets in this exhibit are all from the 19th century, that is, from the “Classic” and "Late Classic" periods indicated above. Ms. Hedlund said that all the items are from the TM collections, that they did not need to borrow anything for this exhibition.

In the first gallery are the “chief’s style” blankets which vary in design from early examples, with horizontal stripes of varying sizes,

to later pieces in which, first rectangular, and then diamond forms are introduced to create a seeming second level in the designs.

Some blankets of this style are also in the second gallery. They are smaller than those in the first gallery and are popularly called “women’s” blankets. Hedlund said that in all the very voluminous photographs they have of Indians wearing blankets, they have not yet ever encountered one in which a so-called “women’s blanket” is worn by a woman.

Chief’s style blankets and women’s style blankets are wider than they are long, but there are also blankets from the Classic period that have lengths longer than their widths. These are called “ponchos” and “serapes” by scholars, but had multiple uses.

One of the first of these is encountered in the second gallery and is interesting for another reason as well.

This zigzag design is produced in part by distorting the warps from a strictly vertical position. One result of this is that the sides are somewhat scalloped.

The third room contains some additional serapes and ponchos some of which are referred to sometimes as “children’s blankets” despite the fact that they are known to have been used for a variety of things and Navajo children are usually found in clothing that is far less august.

One of the serapes in this third room is an instance of something else that Ms. Hedlund talked about in her walkthrough, but did not discuss specifically in her article in Hali, 129 on this exhibition.

The Late Classic Period, approximately 1865 to 1880 was a time of great upheaval in Navajo society. The U.S. government moved the Navajos about and provided them with subsidies of various sorts, including varieties of cloth and materials. This period, oddly, seems also to have been one of rich Navajo weaver work in which they utilized many of these materials, often unraveling them and even recarding them and then re-spinning. Apparently, fairly good records exist of what materials were supplied when, and with dye tests and the use of a methodology that I had not precisely encountered before (“micrographs” of materials), there is a large research effort underway, the results of which are beginning to emerge, which seems likely to permit the scientific dating of many Navajo blankets from the Late Classic period.

Here is a photo from the August, 2003 issue of “American Indian Art,” in which Hedlund has written another article on the Late Classic pieces in this TM exhibition and has provided micrographs for several of them. This is one of the serapes presented there and in this exhibtion with its micrograph.

Some additional tidbits that I can recall from Hedlund’s walkthrough.

1. The exact mechanism through which the Pueblos transferred their weaving skills to the Navajos is not known. Most, but not all, Pueblo weavers were men and most Navajo weavers were and are women. Moreover, Navajo men have a view of contacts between the women of their families and other men that would seem to bar a Pueblo man from teaching weaving to a Navajo woman.

2. The Spanish introduced sheep into the Americas at the very end of the 16th century. The breed was a long-haired Andulasian one, the Churro. During the second half of the 19th century, Navajos acquired other varieties of sheep with wool with more curl and crimp. These wool differences can likely also be used for dating Navajo weavings.

3. 19th century Navajo weavers seem to avoid putting borders on their weavings, especially at the sides. There are Chief’s style blankets that are bounded by design all round, but the weavers seem not to be comfortable with this usage (or may argue that the seemingly confining forms are in a different plane than are the horizontal stripes and therefore do not close them at their unseen ends). Apparently, this reluctance is tied to notions of the effects such borders might have on the investment of herself that weaver is putting into the weaving. Perhaps a danger of the confining of the weaver’s spirit somehow, to say it a bit speculatively, and likely too specifically.

4. The Navajo weavers do not have in their language any of the classification terms used by scholars to describe their weavings. The Navajo descriptions of such pieces tend to have technical or process orientations.

5. Henlund did not herself use any of the “post name” terms (e.g., Ganado, Crystal, Two Grey Hills, etc.) that are used in some of the literature and widely in the market. When I asked her directly about that ,she said that unless a piece was documented at purchase as coming from a given post, they still do not know enough to tell from the piece itself the post from which it might have been marketed. And, of course, such names are more closely associated with the later "Rug Period," beginning in 1895, when as the period classification legend above indicates, posts began to be more influential in initiating requests for rugs and in influencing the designs being made.

6. That there was lots of inter-tribal trade among American Indian tribes for long periods before white men came on the scene and that that continued in the 19th century. Plains Indians in particular liked and traded for Chief's Style blankets and the photograph in this exhibition of an Indian woman wearing one is of a Sioux.

Here's one more serape, simply because I like it.

An exhibition worth seeing.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-09-2003 06:48 PM:

Hi John

Many thanks for reporting this exhibition. I believe that it's the first time American Indian textiles have appeared on Turkotek. I know rather little about them, and the only exhibition of American Indian weavings that I've seen was the one at the Denver Museum when ACOR met in that city. Some, like most of the pieces you show here, were very beautiful. But there was also a group that I thought compared poorly to the most pedestrian Turkish kilims produced during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Lots of a pale gray and colors that looked synthetic and pretty washed out. My recollection is that the "uninteresting" (to me) group was attributed to the period around World War I, and had specific trading post names attached to them.

I'd be interested to hear from some folks who know enough about these things to be able to expand on your comments and further the development of this dark corner of my brain.


Steve Price

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 09-10-2003 12:22 AM:

Visiting the Pueblo


You mention that you are unsure of the mechanism of the transfer of rug weaving skills from the Pueblo to the Navajo.
It is said to have happened when the Spanish were vigorously attacking the Navajo for their raids, sending the Navajo into exile among their neighbors, the Pueblo. The Spanish burned their peach tree orchards, killed off their livestock and ruined their crops.
The Navajo, contrarily, say that their weaving skills were taught to them by Spider Woman.
The border systems were introduced by the trading posts showing oriental rugs to the weavers in an effort to increase the saleability of the rugs to "Eastern" travelers coming in on the newfangled railroad.
Interestingly, the use of synthetic colors in Navajo weavings is considerably less anathemic to Navajo collectors than similar colors are to oriental rug collectors.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-10-2003 09:25 AM:

Hi Steve and Pat -

Yes, you're right about the fact that both serious Navajo collectors and museums treat Navajo weaving with synthetic dyes seriously. And age is important but even more recent rugs can draw big prices.

I remember being in one Denver Navajo rug presentation in which someone in the audience brought a rug forward and asked the speaker how old it was. He said, "Oh about 1955." The owner then said, "What's it worth?" Speaker, "Oh about $14,000."

That's when I decided that Navajo rug dealers live in pretty optimum worlds. Both synthetic dyes and young rugs are OK and can bring high prices.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-11-2003 09:52 AM:

Navajo "Post" Style Rugs

Dear folks –

Steve Price asked a question about “post” rugs, above, some of which he remembered as unattractive, and while I don’t pretend to know anything in particular about Navajo weaving, I do have enough Navajo rugs books to take a shot at his question.

Trading posts sprang up in Navajo country at the end of the 19th century. The traders sold all kinds of things but posts quickly became places where the Navajos could sell their rugs.

If you consult the layout of periods of Navajo weaving in the chart in the initial post in this sequence, you will see that it is the “Rug” period from 1895 until 1950 during which the posts were most prominent.

The post traders were active not only in selling Navajo rugs, but in suggesting to the Navajos interesting designs that they might make. Here is a map indicating the locations of the major trading posts and their names.

Some posts put out catalogs of the Navajo rugs they had for sale and some sold rugs in the styles of other posts. Here is the front cover and four rugs from the 1911 catalog of John B. Moore, who owned the Crystal trading post.

Starting at the upper left is a rug in the Teec Nos Pos style, then in the upper right is a Two Gray Hills style rug. On the lower left is a Storm pattern and at the lower right is a Crystal design with Greek frets. Swastikas were a frequent Navajo design device, but became understandably less popular in the 1940s. Post distinctions include color palette and even technical characteristics. Two Gray Hills rugs have a reputation as the finest Navajo rugs and often have more than 100 lines of weft per vertical inch.

Navajo weaving continues to be very robust today (I forget the estimate Hedlund made of the number of Navajo weavers we have currently but it is the thousands) and these post patterns and styles continue to be made. (This shows how tricky it is to estimate when a given craft is going to disappear. Once when I visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which has a wonderful collection of Navajo rugs, I saw on the gallery labels that a goodly number of the rugs in their collection had in fact been commissioned at the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries by collectors fearful that the Navajo weaving tradition was dying out. They paid the best weavers of their day to “document” traditional Navajo weaving by making particular traditional style pieces.)

And even contemporary Navajo pieces, which take several months to make, can command high prices. A high quality 3 X 5 Navajo weaving can often command a price of $5,000. There are juried contests and subsequent sales of rugs in Navajo country. Prize winning pieces are purchased immediately by collectors.

Here is a such a piece in a Two Gray Hills style that was made in 1954

And although we try to avoid talking much about prices of individual rugs here on Turkotek, it might be permissible to suggest an equivalency.

As the caption says, this weaver traded her Two Gray Hills design for this pickup truck.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-11-2003 10:21 AM:

Hi John

One of the things I notice is that the "trading post" rugs have long vertical straight lines, although the older pieces don't. Clearly, the "trading post" textiles aren't slit tapestry like Asian kilims. Do you know if the older pieces are?


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-11-2003 11:24 AM:

Steve -

I've not analyzed older versus newer pieces closely, but do think that older pieces ARE mosty slit tapestry in which the size of the slits are minimized by the use of largely diagonal designs. But the older rugs also sometimes have longer sections of vertical color change. Look at the rectangles in the second image in the first post and also at the "crosses" in some of the older pieces. The Navajos could and did sometimes use interlocking versions of tapestry and the colors zigzag a little at vertical color changes.

A related point is that Navajo rugs were often built up in sections rather than woven straight across the entire width of a rug, (Hedlun seemed even to say that some weavers would work up to a point in a design then turn the loom upside down and work the rest of the rug from the other end.) Anyway, the fact that there were sections of weft that are not completely continuous from one side of the rug to the other made "joining" necessary and such joining was frequently visible as a diagonal "lazy line." "Lazy lines" were even sometimes thought by some to indicate which rugs were authentically Navajo (such would have them), but are not a reliable indicator anymore at least, since Hedlun says that the Navajo weavers have discovered ways of making these joints much less visible.

Another possibility is, though, that vertical lines of color change were made using one of the other weaves the Navajos are known to have used. Charles Amsden, "Navajo Weaving," 1934, lists:

Plain weave
Diagonal twill
Five diamond twills
Double cloth

He says with variations he has documented nine distinct weaves each with its own "heddle rig as well as a definite order of heddle manipulation."


R. John Howe