Classic Navajo Textiles
Classic Navajo textiles can be classified into two structural types: the longer than wide, which are the serapes, ponchos and dresses, and the wider than long, the Chief’s Blankets and Mantas. So what do we mean by longer than wide or wider than long? It really refers to the length of the warps. The length of the warps is really the length of the textile. Picture a Navajo weaver in front of her loom, if the loom is tall and narrow, she’s weaving a serape, if it is low but wide she might very well be weaving a glorious First Phase Chief’s Blanket! Even though you cannot see the warps, you can tell one by the rib formed by the weft passing over it. So, the warps are always vertical, therefore if, when holding a classic textile, you have to raise your arms way above your head to keep the warps vertical, you are holding a serape. But, if you have to spread your arms wide across, then you are looking at a blanket! Easy!
So now, let’s think a little bit more about these warps. For example, an average serape 10 warps per inch and to make it easier, 50 inch wide, will have 500 warps across! That weaver went over and around her loom frame 500 times to create the skeleton of her textile, and she has not even started to weave yet! And, if she was warping her loom for the same average Chief’s Blanket 70 inch wide, she will need 700 warps! When looking at a tightly woven textile, 15 or 18 warps per inch, I always think about the work, patience and dedication of these talented women working in very primitive conditions.
What we call the “Classic Period” is the period between 1800 and 1860 (Ann Lane Hedlund) or roughly anytime before Bosque Redondo (1862-1868). The only examples of weaving predating 1800 are fragments found at Massacre Cave, Canyon de Chelly and other burial sites. Many of these examples are striped or banded style of natural colors, white, brown and black as well as indigo-dyed native wool and Lac and Cochineal-dyed unraveled yarns from commercial cloth.
Some of the finest examples of serapes and ponchos date from the early to mid 1800’s. Of all the Classic Navajo textiles, the serape is the only one not an adaptation of Pueblo tradition. The Navajo weavers based these blankets on the Spanish/Mexican Saltillo Serape, first produced in the Northern Mexico town of Saltillo. These soft, finely woven blankets have a dense, elaborate and complex patterning that had a strong influence on both style and quality of Navajo weavings.
In contrast, the famous Chief’s Blankets are derived from the traditional Pueblo textiles. Navajo weavers added a wide, central brown-black band with symmetrically placed stripes of indigo blue and sometimes red bayeta to create the First Phase style. Red rectangular blocks are inserted within the top, bottom and central stripes in the Second Phase, which are replaced by diamonds and triangles in the Third Phase.
These finely woven Chief’s Blankets were invaluable trade items, highly prized by Plains Indians. Many of these blankets now in collections were acquired from Plains tribes.
The weavings produced during the Classic Period are examples of the finest ever crafted by any peoples in the world. It was the high point of the Navajo weaving tradition, rising from a craft to an art form equaled to the best.
This raises the question of how to best display a Navajo textile? The typical way is to hang it to a wall as one would a framed painting. This transforms an utilitarian blanket into an abstract piece of flat art. To improve and give more volume and depth to it, it is a good idea to set the textile 4 to 6 inches off the wall with a hanging support.
One can also metamorphose this flat art into a three dimensional, in the round sculpture by wrapping it onto a support or a mannequin frame free standing or better, hanging to a wall. The blanket becomes a floating sculpture, unveiling new patterns invisible before.
Blanket Weaving of the Southwest: Joe Ben Wheat
Navaho Weaving: Charles Avery Amsden
Walk in Beauty: Anthony Berlant, Mary Hunt Kahlenberg