Published: January 13, 2004
The craft of native weaving developed in the Southwest early in the history of the Americas, with a distinctive Navajo style and tradition firmly in place by the mid-Seventeenth Century. Although little is known about their works from the 1650s through the Eighteenth Century, the period from 1800 to the present is thoroughly documented in Navajo history.
To celebrate the art of the Navajo weaver, a selection of colorful blankets made between 1800 and 1890 is currently on view at The Textile Museum. The exhibition, “Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century: Selections from The Textile Museum Collections,” highlights the powerful aesthetics and significant trends characteristic of Nineteenth Century Navajo weavings. It will be open through March 14.
The 16 Navajo blankets on view were created by accomplished Nineteenth Century weavers who participated in traditional Navajo culture and embraced change as a significant part of life. The exhibition also explores how experts today analyze Navajo blankets’ materials, structures and designs to assign dates to each textile.
“Navajo Indians — who call themselves ‘Dine,’ meaning The People — continue today to honor Spider Woman and Spider Man, the holy people who first brought them knowledge of weaving,” states Ann Lane Hedlund, guest curator at The Textile Museum. “Generations of weavers used handmade tools and local materials to clothe their families with blankets in traditional and innovative patterns.” Using upright frame looms, Navajo weavers created colorful wool blankets that served many purposes, including use as clothing, cloaks, baby wraps, bedding, furnishings, saddle pads and trade goods. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, Navajo weavers refined the blankets’ designs and layouts as they drew inspiration from native basketry patterns and Pueblo, Mexican and Spanish influences.
The earliest known Navajo weavings share many traits with weavings of the neighboring Pueblo Indians, including specific techniques and early blanket styles. In contrast, Navajo weavings of the later documented periods are distinctly Navajo. Nineteenth Century weavings can be divided into several divergent periods: Classic (1800-1865), Late Classic (1865-1880) and Transitional (1880-1895). These were followed by Rug (1895-1950) and Modern (1950-present). “Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century” includes select examples from the first three periods.
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, however, 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. The exhibition includes a rare first phase chief’s-style blanket along with later second and third versions, and two second phase women’s-style blankets.
Contacts with Spaniards, Mexicans and Anglo-Americans introduced new materials, motifs and markets to Navajo weavers.
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.M.), 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.
Studying Navajo Blankets
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 presents new research relative to dating The Textile Museum’s collection. Micrographs (closeup 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 are also on display.
About the Curator
Hedlund, the curator for the exhibition, is director of the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. She holds a PhD in anthropology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she began studying with Wheat in 1973. Hedlund has conducted ethnographic research among contemporary Navajo weavers and historical research on southwestern textiles for 30 years. Currently a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Hedlund is author of numerous publications and recently edited the book Blanket Weaving in the Southwest by Wheat, which was recently released by the University of Arizona Press.
Other exhibitions running concurrently at The Textile Museum include a selection of African American quilts from the Robert and Helen Cargo collection that will be on display through February 29. The exhibition features African American quilts from the South, primarily Alabama. Quilts from this region represent an important chapter of American quilt history and reflect the diverse traditions that merge to form the American quilting heritage.
Founded in 1925 by George Hewitt Myers, The Textile Museum is an international center for the exhibition, study, collection and preservation of the textile arts. The museum explores the role that textiles play in the daily and ceremonial life of individuals the world over. Special attention is given to textiles of the traditional societies of the Near East, Asia, Africa and the indigenous cultures of the Americas. The museum also presents exhibitions of historical and contemporary quilts and fiber art. With a collection of more than 17,000 textiles and carpets and an unparalleled library, The Textile Museum is a unique and valuable resource for people locally, nationally and internationally.
The Textile Museum is a private, nonprofit museum open Monday through Saturday 10 am to 5 pm and Sunday 1 to 5 pm. Admission is free; suggested donation is $5. The museum is at 2320 S Street NW. For information, 202-667-0441.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm