Saturday, July 2, 2016

What is a Navajo Rug? By Bruce McLaren

What is a Navajo Rug?

Over here in the USA there is somewhat an obsession with the term “Navajo Rugs”. Having been to the Southwest of the Great Republic and seen the eternal turquoise skies and blazing red deserts, of mile deep ravines and lands ripped apart, I too can recognize an instant correlation between that most dramatic part of the world and the designs and color schemes favored by the Indigenous Inhabitants.

The main tribal group traditionally found in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah are the Navajo, who now occupy a vast reservation. As anyone who has travelled through the Reservations knows, this is a dry, desert land, of high mesas and semi-arid conditions. This is also the traditional area of the Pueblo Indians, who occupied the area one thousand years ago and most famously lived as cliff dwellers up on the Mesa Verde, and in turn are closely related to the Anasazi who lived along the river beds of the Grand Canyon.

Location of Navajo Country
 During the period 1000-1500 AD the Navajo gradually settled in this area, having made the journey from Alaska. In fact, some Indigenous groups in Alaska have the same parent tongue as the Navajo and can even understand parts of Navajo. The linguistic group is known as Athapascan. Navajo was also used during the war by the allies as the Germans could not decipher it, but that is another story and one that has been widely told elsewhere.

The Pueblo Indians who occupied this region before the arrival of the Navajo had become quite sedentary and harvested season crops up on the mesas. The Pueblo settlements were located in naturally defended cliff walls and survive virtually intact today. The Navajo, on the other hand, were more wild and unruly, making their living by raiding other Indian Tribes.

Pueblo Cliff Dwellings. Mesa Verde

Many attest that the idea of weaving first passed from the Pueblo to the Navajo and that is almost certainly most likely. The Pueblo had been weaving, using simple over and under techniques in order to makes baskets and other objects, for centuries. Soon, the Navajo were surpassing their Pueblo neighbors in the weaving arts.

Navajo Loom

Now to hark back to my first sentence there is a widespread fascination with Navajo Rugs over here in the United States. This general wonder at all things Indian really first took place in the mid 1850s when the train opened up the grand Southwest to the average American. Indian designs, folklore, belief systems and associated products like woven blankets, became immensely popular in the later 1800s and remain so today.

In fact, there is hardly a hotel west of the Mississippi that does not have a Navajo blanket or rug. Just take a look at this snapshot from The Shining showing one of the many marvelous Navajo rugs in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.

Stanley Park. Estes Hills, CO

Glancing back over the terrain we have just covered it is clear that the concept behind a Navajo Rug has all of the ingredients of a hybridization. The Navajo, originally arrived from the northwest, dominated the indigenous Pueblo Tribe, but learning the art of weaving along the way. Well, what did that old Navajo weaving look like. Let’s take a look at the structure.

Navajo Weave

Navajo weave is basically a relatively simple type of looped flat weave with the yarn pulled very tight to compress the warp and weft strings. Plain stripes or geometric motifs predominate. But let us go back to the very earliest surviving remnants to see what they looked like. The piece below was found in the so-called “Massacre Cave” where a large number of Navajo who had taken shelter in a cave were killed. This piece of fabric is typical of the earliest know pieces, comprising only straight lines, and woven in the three dominant types of sheep wool – white, black and brown. No dyes were involved.

"Massacre Cave" fragment

As the name “Massacre Cave” suggests, the Navajo were faced with difficult times as first the Mexican-Spanish made their way up to Santa Fe in 1600 AD and claimed the Navajo territory as their own. The Mexicans technically oversaw this anarchic region for the next few centuries, with no real attempt to rule effectively, rather, raiding the Indian Tribes themselves for slaves and other goods.

In spite of all of this the newfound connection with the Mexicans meant access to new materials. The first two products of note to make their way into the world of Navajo arts were indigo-blue as a dye and the introduction of wool. For the first time Navajo blankets were made with wool instead of just cotton. The use of blue is evident in this example of a “1st Phase Chief Blanket” which combines blue with traditional sheep wools with natural colors. Again, note that this early blanket is simply a striped  garment with no ornamentation.

Chief Blanket Phase 1. c.1800 AD

More Spanish influences may be noted in the use of the so-called Saltillo Diamond, which later made its way into many Navajo designs but was thoroughly a Spanish motif. Also, as may be noted from the color of this Saltillo Serape, products made by the Spaniards using red bayeta made their way to Navajo lands, where the red thread was undone and employed in new Navajo weavings.

Saltillo Serape
Chief Blanket Phase 2. c.1850

The Chief Blankets are the most diagnostic Navajo weaving and are so-called because it was usually only the chief who could afford to wear one. A Phase 1 Chief Blanket with blue lines was valued recently on Antiques Road-show to be worth in excess of $400 000, so that is a measure of the market for these older pieces.

Still, the salient point to emerge from all of this is that Navajo designs were originally comprised of stripes, not patterned motif, even up until the later variations at the end of the century.

Chief Blanket Phase 3. c.1870 AD

Chief Blanket Variation with cross. c. 1870 AD
While in this example the chief blanket incorporates clear Spanish cross influences. This in turn became The Harding, the most popular selling design made by Pendelton Woollen Mills and the first design they patented, which they now produce in conjunction with us right here at Southwest Looms.

To return to the emerging theme – Navajo Rugs are a hybridization, of Pueblo influences, Navajo influences, Spanish influences, and, last but not least, Anglo influences.

By the mid-1800’s the American Government had pushed west towards Spanish territory and in the 1850s had pushed Mexico out. The Navajo, as was the fate of most Indigenous Indians, were treated particularly harshly, being rounded up and forced to march 300 miles to Bosque Redondo in south-eastern New Mexico. Many died as a result. Fortunately, with four years the error had been acknowledged the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral lands.

In this wild frontier some hardy and enterprising types set up trading posts where Indian made goods could be sold to travelers. Some of these trading posts were established at places, many of whose names are associated with a rug design - Ganado, Gallup, Crystal, Teec Nos Pos, Two Gray Hills and Wide Ruins.

Ganado Trading Post

But as we have already seen but have yet to comment upon – the Navajo only ever made blankets, or Serapes. They never made rugs! None the less, we at Southwest looms have made some Serape designs as rugs.


                  Serape N-12 by Southwest Looms alongside an antique Serape

That is, at least until the westerners on the Trading Posts, sought to get the Navajo weavers to make rugs. In order to do this, they imported machine-spun yarn from Germantown Pennsylvania, Analine dyes, and Asiatic rug designs to serve as a template. At the turn of the century rugs from the Caucasus were very much in demand. As a result, these basic designs were reproduced.

An old Caucasian rug used as a template for a Navajo Design

So all of the motifs, the diamonds, the strange guls, unfortunately have no real significance for the Navajo, who were weaving purely for a western market. Anyone searching for deeper meaning in these patterns is sadly led astray. These designs are the product of the mind of western man. But the rather strange point to take away from this all is how the concepts behind a Navajo rug as made today are an incredible hybrid of influences from all over the place.

The western market also includes rugs, so these designs are much using a heavier construction. Here at Southwest looms we are proud to think that our Dreamcatcher Line of Navajo rugs takes old designs, so typical of the colorful vibrancy of Navajo country and culture, and have produced a true thing of beauty.

Our Navajo reproductions faithfully follow the exact weaving techniques of authentic Navajo rugs and employ lazy lines, whipstitch side edging and corner tufting. Flatweave carpets lack pile and consist solely of warp and weft. Different colors of wool weft produce the design.

Our authentic Navajo reproductions allow clients the opportunity to showcase this look in their homes at an affordable price. Original Navajos are expensive and too rare and fragile to be used as floor covering. Very few large Navajo rugs were woven and when available are very expensive. It is difficult to find authentic Navajo rugs larger than 5x7. Our reproductions afford the opportunity to have this look in large rugs (6x9-10x14) or even larger for custom orders.

1 comment:

  1. Today the modern designer rugs consisting of pure wool have become the true requirements of the modern fashion and decoration. Designer rugs are also far more colourful than the traditional ones. Visit: Designer Rugs Australia