Most of the Navajo weaving has been done with wool since the early 1800’s. Before that, Navajo's were also known for their cotton textiles. Only one cotton sarape from that time period is known today and is on display at the Heard Museum Collection. The switch from cotton to wool may have been because of the nomadic Navajo lifestyle. It is easier for the ambulant sheep to do the growing on his back than for the nomadic man to grow cotton in an arid desert habitat!
Hair, wool, fur, eyelashes, whiskers and even porcupine quills are all made of the same material, a protein called, “keratine” growing from the same “hair” follicles. So what is the difference between hair, wool and fur? A common answer is that hair and wool keep growing whereas fur stops at a certain length. So by definition dogs and cats have fur, but we say, “dog hair,” and “cat hair!” What about the hair on our arms and legs? It grows to a certain length and stops, but we do not say that we have fury legs!
Another characteristic that differentiates hair, wool and fur is their density. Human hair has around 200 to 500 follicles per square inch (mine on a good, "hair day” has one per square inch :( !!!) The sheep on the other hand has 60,000 follicles per sq. inch, so wool it is! Then you have the sea otter, with one of the highest, “hair” density, 800,000 per sq. inch! This is fur.
So really there is not a definitive answer to that question more a matter of word usage.
Lets go back to wool in Navajo weaving.
Luckily, the first sheep to come to the Southwest were the common Churro sheep of Southern Spain and not the “royal" Merino, for the Churro wool was ideally adapted for the hand processing methods of this arid region. The medium to fine long staple fiber of the Churro has little crimp and scale structure and virtually no grease, making it easy to clean, comb and card. The resulting soft fleece can easily be spun into a strong single ply yarn, requiring very little twist. This is what is called worsted wool as opposed to woolen wool.
In late 1700’s the Navajo were given presents by the Spanish government as, “gratification” for good behavior! One of the gifts was a brilliant red, cochineal dyed cloth called bayeta, that was highly prized by native weavers and incorporated with their hand spun yarns into their textiles. The introduction of bayeta stimulated the native weavers to a level of excellence never seen before. The quality of the ravelled bayeta yarns challenged the best weavers to improve and refine their own Churro yarns to create the finest textiles ever produced. This was the pinnacle of the Classic Navajo weaving art, giving us the magnificent Classic Sarape and Chief’s Blankets
After the war in 1848 American goods were replacing Mexican ones and what is known as American flannel started to be used in textiles. Most of this flannel is a synthetic dyed wool with a red-orange color, also unraveled and woven into blankets.
By the mid 1800’s the so called Saxony yarn was introduced to Navajo weavers. A soft, 3 ply worsted naturally dyed yarn in red, blue and green predominantly. This was produced in Germany and other European countries. It was Merino worsted wool at first and then wollen later on.
Another European yarn, Zephyr, similar to Saxony is sometime found in textiles of this period.
In the 1870’s a new commercial yarn produced in Pennsylvania was brought to the reservation, the Germantown. Originally a 3 ply, synthetic dye yarn it then was a 4 ply yarn. Using the new aniline dies Germantown was offered in many different bright colors opening new horizons to the weavers and they took off and ran with it! We owe the “Eyedazzler” to Germantown and aniline union!
These were the wools and yarns used by Navajo weavers from the earliest period through the Classic late Classic and Transitional period.
Each period was highly influenced by the type and quality of the wool and dyes available. The Classic and Late Classic periods are still of the highest level of work(woman)ship and artistic creation.