Updated June 26, 2008Weaving Navajo rugs is a true American folk art. Born on the looms of the Pueblo Indians before the arrival of the Spanish, it was nurtured and perfected by the Navajo weaver.
When considering a Navajo rug, the common terminology for all Navajo weaving, it is important to realize that the product is 100% hand made. There are no machine made Navajo rugs. There are imitations which are occasionally mislabeled as “genuine Navajo rugs,” A reputable dealer will advise you how to determine if a rug is a genuine Navajo weaving.
The Mystery of Navajo Designs
Weaving is traditionally taught by mother to daughter. The young child is first taught to clean the wool, then to spin and finally a small loom is assembled and the warp is strung and the rug is woven. Patterns and designs are rarely diagrammed and even the youngest weaver is taught to plan her designs and colors in her head and to visualize the complete project.
The Navajo loom is upright as opposed to horizontal in Mexican and Spanish-American weaving. The exact length and width must be planned as the ends or selvedge is attached before any weaving is done. The wool is washed, spun, and in some cases, dyed. The time and skill involved in preparing the wool and stringing the loom usually takes many days or even weeks. Then the weaving begins. The weaver’s skill comes into play as she expertly passes the weft yarn between the separated warp. Over one and under the next in an endless mix until a design becomes evident. The weaver knows what will appear but a casual observer may be mystified.
The Decline and Rebirth of Navajo Weaving
Navajo weaving is constantly changing. In the latter part of the 19th Century the Anglo Traders influenced the patterns, designs, and sizes of Navajo rugs. Prior to this period most weaving was done for wearing blankets and other garments. Later the demand for fine old blankets declined. The Traders suggested patterns and provided a market for the finished product. Rugs were often bought by the pound and sold by the bale to outlets in the “east.” There they competed with oriental rugs and factory made products. Quality didn’t matter, quantity did. The quality of Navajo weaving went into sharp decline.
Astute Traders realized that the livelihood of the Navajo would be in jeopardy and many began urging weavers to take more time, spin the wool finer, do something exceptional. They rewarded the underpaid weavers for quality work. J.B. Moore at Crystal, Lorenzo Hubbel at Ganado and many others were responsible for the regional designs. Names such as Teec Nos Pos, Two Grey Hills, Crystal, Ganado became buy words for the collecting public and dealers. This is true today. However, recent trends in Navajo weaving emphasize the independence of the weaver.
What About Pictorial Weavings?
Now more and more weavers are creating their own designs which are similar but still entirely different from the old regional trading post patterns. Pictorial weavings have become popular with weavers, dealers and collectors. Pictorals allow weavers to create whimsical images or desert scenes with animals, trucks and schoolbuses. The new designs underline the fact that Navajo weaving is alive and well.
Should You Buy for Investment?
Are Navajo rugs a good “investment?” The answer is a qualified, “Yes.” Prices have escalated in recent years. This is due to increased demand and the recognition that weaving is a genuine art form. There are fewer good weavers and most youngsters have never and will never learn the art. Navajo life has changed. The tempo is faster. Demands for money and the impact of inflations is keenly felt. Fewer and fewer women in coming generations will be full time weavers and many will not weave at all.
Current demand for older rugs is strong. Fine blankets from a century ago bring exceptionally good prices at auctions. Today’s weavers are creating outstanding pieces. In many cases, the quality of today matches or exceeds the quality of yesterday. Certainly the riches of today will be considered bargains in the years ahead. The individual buyer should buy for the long haul. It is probably safe to assume that values will increase, but this should not be used as a sole reason for purchasing a Navajo rug. Each piece is an example of a true Native American art and that alone makes it worth having.
Information and above article courtesy: Indian Arts and Crafts Association.
As an example of exemplary Navajo weaving art, have a look at William Whitehair's work. While most Navajo weavers are women, there are an increasing number of excellent male weavers.