Published: September 2, 2003
“Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century: Selections from The Textile Museum Collections” will be on view September 5 to March 14.
The exhibition features 16 blankets made between 1800 and 1890 that highlight the powerful aesthetics and significant trends characteristic of Nineteenth Century Navajo weaving. The exhibition also explores how experts today analyze Navajo blankets’ materials, structures and designs to assign dates to each textile. It is the first exhibit of Navajo textiles at the museum in more than ten years.
Using upright frame looms and basic hand tools, Navajo weavers created colorful wool blankets that served many purposes such as clothing, cloaks, bedding, saddle pads, baby wraps, furnishings and trade goods. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Navajo weavers refined the blankets’ designs and layouts as they drew inspiration from native basketry patterns and neigh-boring Pueblo, Mexican and Spanish American weaving traditions. The blankets in the exhibition represent some of the most notable and dynamic styles developed – chief’s-style blankets, women’s-style blankets, a poncho, wedge-weave blankets and smaller serapes.
“Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century” is curated by Ann Lane Hedlund, director of the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. The Textile Museum’s presentation of the exhibition is supported by endowed funding made possible by the late Gloria F. Ross and the Gloria F. Ross Foundation.
While the Navajo weaving tradition became established around 1650, weaving prior to 1800 is not well known. Navajo weaving of the Nineteenth Century can be divided into several distinct periods: Classic, 1800-1865; Late Clas-sic, 1865-1880; Transitional, 1880-1895; Rug, 1895-1950 and Modern 1950-present. “Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century” will include examples from the Classic, Late Classic and transitional periods of Navajo weaving.
Six Classic and Late Classic chief’s-style blankets, characterized by wide horizontal bands often overlaid with bold geometric motifs, are featured in the exhibit. The name “chief blanket” is a misnomer, as local family heads rather than chiefs governed the Navajos. Such blankets were valued as trade goods among the Plains Indians to the north and east and were often worn by high status men and women from Plains tribes. Over the course of the Nineteenth Century, the chief’s style evolved through several phases, from basic stripes to elaborate layers of geometric motifs.
“Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century” includes a rare first phase chief’s-style blanket along with later second and third versions, and two second phase women’s-style blankets.
The Late Classic period of Navajo weaving was an intense time of cultural change for the Navajo people. Perhaps the most cataclysmic event of this period was Kit Carson’s 1863 forced removal of the Navajo people to Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner, N. Mex.), where they were interned until 1868. Starting with the captivity at Bosque Redondo and continuing to 1879 the US government supplied the Navajos with goods, including yarn, fabric, blankets and weaving tools. This exposure to new materials, and also to stimuli such as Spanish American and Mexican patterned blankets, influenced Navajo design and led to textiles of the Transitional period. During this time, production shifted from traditional blankets to smaller textiles and rugs with brilliant colors and designs largely intended for the trade market.
Six Late Classic serapes in the exhibition come from these turbulent times, while two wedge-weave blankets in the exhibition represent the end of the Late Classic period and Navajo weaving’s entry into the Transitional period.
Changes in wool quality, yarn composition and dyestuffs occurred frequently in Navajo weaving during the Nineteenth Century. Such dynamics inherent in the weaving materials now allow scholars to reconstruct a more precise timeline for southwestern textile types.
The late Joe Ben Wheat, former curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, used technical analyses, chemical dye tests and archival records in his pioneering work on southwestern blankets. Using Wheat’s methods, including the scientific identification of red dyes, the exhibition “Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century” presents new research relative to dating The Textile Museum’s collection.
Micrographs (close-up photographs) of yarns in the exhibition’s blankets illustrate the kinds of materials that allow analysts to date each textile more accurately. Charts of the dye analyses and examples of raw materials and tools will also be on display.
The Textile Museum, 2320 S. Street NW, is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. For information, 202-667-0441.
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