The history of Navajo weaving is reflective of the history of the Navajo people. Navajo mythology explains how weaving began when the first loom was given to the Navajo people. Created from the power of the sun with lashing cords made of lightning and the warp strings made of rain came the frame. From these three elements, the Navajo were provided with the materials from which they could fabricate their own looms. Now that there was a loom, Spiderwoman came to the Navajo to show them how to weave upon the loom and create items of unique beauty and utility.
With the arrival of the Spanish in search of the riches of the New World came the first official written references to Navajo weaving. In addition to chronicling the ongoing hostilities between the Spanish and the Navajo, the Conquistadores made many references to the beauty and quality of Navajo weaving.
The earliest Navajo weaving were blankets, woven wider than long, and designed with simple stripes of white and brown. These Navajo blankets, notably “Chief’s Blankets, were known throughout the Southwest as the finest quality Native American textiles. Know for being supple, warm, and naturally water resistant, these blankets were highly valued and sought after as a trade items throughout the entire western half of North America.
The Navajo used no native dyestuffs prior to 1850. Derived from rabbit brush, yellow is the first color seen after that time. Yellow was often combined with indigo a popular trade item to form a green color. Red the color most synonymous with Navajo textiles was obtained by the Navajo via trade routes from Europe, through Spain, then Mexico and eventually into the Southwestern colonies.
Designs of Navajo textiles began as simple stripes but quickly evolved to narrow stripes that formed blocks in the center, corners, and middle edges of the blanket. This block design aesthetic was further morphed by the influence of the colonists from Spain and Mexico into diamond patterns that are now synonymous with Navajo weaving.
Due to their artistic beauty and sensible function, Navajo woven textiles now and throughout history are perhaps the most valued and sought after textile product of the American Southwest. Preserving the historical and cultural relevance of these important textiles is why I am so passionate about my work. I look at each textile restoration project not only as a way to preserve the history of the Navajo people but to celebrate that heritage.
Each and every restoration is a unique as the story of the textile and the Navajo people. As much as each restoration is unique, I have developed over the course of 20 years a process for the successful restoration of Navajo textiles. The objective of each restoration is to return your Navajo textile back to its original glory so it is able to continue to tell the story of the Navajo people for years to come.
My restoration process follows these steps:
The first step in the renovation of a Navajo textile is to evaluate the scope of the restoration and the relative value of the item. It is important to me that you know the monetarily value of your Navajo rug so you can make the decision if the items is viable for restoration. A large majority of the rugs I work on are given to an individual from a beloved friend or relative so I understand that they may have a special place in your heart that may supersede monetary value. As much as it may be financially detrimental to me, I want you to be fully aware that sometimes the cost may exceed the retail value of a weaving. I am not a rug dealer but it is important to me that I am doing right by you and the textile before I start the restoration process.
This actual restoration begins with trying to estimate the age of the textile. The age of the item will determine what were the different materials the Navajo were using at the time and when the rug was originally fabricated.
The biggest question I am trying to answer when determining the age of the item is what type of wool was used to make your Navajo weaving? In the beginning of Navajo weaving, the Navajo weavers would use churro wool brought to the Americas from early Spainish explorers either by trade or raid. After Bosque Redondo (internment of the Navajo and Apache by the US government during the Civil War) the US government forced the use of sheep on the Navajo because they thought sheep would be good for food and weaving. After the introduction of sheep wool a wide variety of different wool blends were used in Navajo weaving. The 1870s saw a cross between churro sheep and Kentucky merino. This was just the first of different breads of sheep and wool being introduced into the manufacturing process. Rambouillet was introduced in 1903, Shropshire and Hampshire in1910, Suffolk in 1921 and Lincoln in 1933. Characteristics in the different sheep breed wools help in the dating a Navajo rug but more importantly are critical in the actual restoration process.
In addition to the type of wool, the spin and the diameter of the wool is very important in the restoration of Navajo weavings. Most Navajo yarn is z-spun and very rarely plied. This is unlike Oriental/Persian rugs that are z-spun and s-plied meaning they use multiple single ply yarn spun together. The diameter of the wool is important because you do not want to put wool that may fit loosely spun. Loosely woven wool placed into a Navajo weaving that is of tapestry quality would show up like a patch on your jeans.
Once the type or types of wool that were used is determined then I try to ascertain what the type of dye or dyes were used. Before synthetic dyes were invented, indigo dye was a highly traded commodity on the Santa Fe Trail. In addition to indigo, the Navajo particularly loved the use of the color red found in bayeta trade cloth.
When i have a sense of all the elements that went into the production of your Navajo rug I begin with the actual restoration. First, I localize the damaged area on a stretching frame to make sure the tension is close to the tension used when it was originally loomed up. Once that is done then the actual re-weaving process begins. This is when the craftsman becomes the artist. With over 20 years of Navajo rug restoration experience I painstakingly reweave and recreate the damaged areas of the textile. This is a time consuming manual process. I utilize the same tools and process of the original Navajo artisans to seamlessly blend the repaired sections with the original textile.
Because I have restored thousands of Navajo rugs and weavings, not much can surprise me anymore. If I haven’t seen it before, I will tirelessly research the history of your textile to make sure that the final restoration is in line with the original manufacturing. The goal of each restoration is to return to you a textile that is as close as humanly possible to the original condition of the textile.