Conceivably the most important trait of the Navajo people and their contribution to Native American Indian blankets history and art, is the flexibility and ingenuity with which they undertake new ideas and new technologies.
Navajo blankets weaving probably developed in the seventeenth century, borrowed in part from Native American Pueblo Indian weavers and in part from Spanish colonial sources. Slaving by Spanish colonists was a customary practice; and Navajos, who lived in remote extended family groups, rather than densely inhabited villages, were particularly vulnerable to slave traders. Spanish historical records specifically mention the value of Navajo women, because of their quick proficiency and great competence with the Spanish loom.
Southwest Pueblo Indians also suffered greatly under Spanish rule, which ultimately led to the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, whereby the Spanish were driven from the territory. Fearing retaliation, many Pueblo Indians joined their Navajo neighbors; and southwest Indian art, culture and technology exchanges, introduced the Navajo to Pueblo Native American Indian blankets weaving skills.
The earliest known Navajo blankets and weavings resembled the Pueblo Native American Indian blankets of the time, and were fashioned of plain stripes, and twill weaves, resulting in a diagonally ribbed effect. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Navajo weavers crafted broader than long mantas using natural wool colors, indigo, and a few vegetal dyes. Mantas were shawl-like Indian blankets, used as a piece of clothing, and also identified with their Pueblo neighbors. The Navajo weavers obtained unraveled red yarns from commercial trade fabrics, such as bayeta; and included these yarns in their Native American Indian blankets. Originally from England, bayeta was available to the southwest Indians in vast quantities, through traders.
The Classic Period continued from 1700 until 1863. By the 1820s, Navajo blankets and weavings had become a very much sought after art. Navajo Native American Indian blankets grew to be a widespread trade item with both the Spanish and Americans, as well as other Indian tribes. Navajo blankets and weavings were regarded as finer quality Native American Indian blankets, and higher quality than pieces woven on the European style horizontal looms. As far away as the Plains, other Indian tribes used and wore Navajo Indian blankets and weavings. By 1850, beginning the Late Classic Period, more brightly colored commercial yarns became available, and patterns in Navajo blankets and weavings became increasingly more colorful and intricate. Although Navajos wove several styles of Native American blankets or mantas during the Classic Period; undoubtedly the best known is the Navajo Chief Blanket, which was a striped shoulder blanket widely traded among Indians of that time. By the end of the Classic Period, Navajo blankets and weavings were invariable longer than wide, and vertical in design arrangement. The Spanish poncho serape motifs probably influenced the Navajo weavers in this direction.
The Bosque Redondo Period persisted from 1864 unti1 1868. Following the United States acquisition of the American Southwest in 1848, the Navajos’ nomadic way of life frequently conflicted with that of the new American citizens. In 1864, 8,000 Navajos were forced to walk to Fort Sumner, at Bosque Redondo in east central New Mexico, in what endures in infamy as the Long Walk. The internment severely affected Navajo life and their art; natural wool was unobtainable, and the Navajo textile art revolution tragically toppled. The conditions at Bosque Redondo were deplorable; and in 1868, the Navajos were permitted to return to their homeland.
The Transition Period from 1868 to 1890, brought much change. Weavers began rebuilding their sheep flocks, and embarked on an unleashed celebration of color. Weavers began experimenting with the now available bright colors of the Germantown yarns, so named because of original manufacture in Germantown Pa. Traders settled on the southwest Indian reservation, providing a consistent link between the Navajo people and the larger market economy of the United States. Commercial Germantown yarns generally lost their fascination, and weavers returned to using hand spun wool. An important part of the trader strategy was to promote the Native American Indian blankets, that could be sold to the white man. During this period, Navajo textiles made the transition from Navajo blankets to Navajo rugs. Small Navajo Native American blankets, saddle blankets were also produced. Some traders attempted to influence weavers to make changes in their Indian blankets and rug designs. During this period, most of the motifs that became important parts of Navajo Indian weaving and art were introduced, and some of the Navajo weavings regional rug history and styles developed.
During the Rug Period 1890 to 1930, new styles were experimented with; and weaving of Navajo blankets and rugs, driven largely by the traders, developed for the purpose of selling these southwest Indian blankets and art. Traders encouraged the use of hand spun wool, and many of the brightest colors were discouraged, although red remained popular. Don Lorenzo Hubbell, of Hubbell Trading Post, encouraged a return to the Navajo late Classic Period southwest Indian blankets designs and colors: bold crosses, stripes and diamonds, and black borders. Another influential trader, J. B. Moore of Crystal Trading Post, encouraged the use of design motifs such as arrows and swastikas, and patterns associated with oriental rugs, such as large, elongated central figures and borders. Navajo blankets and rug weaving production was high, traders were turning out catalogs, and tourists were coming to see these southwest Indian blankets and art. In 1910, the introduction of the French Rambouillet sheep to the Navajo reservation, was a disaster to the expansion of Navajo blankets, rugs and weavings, and southwest Indian art that had been taking place. In an effort to increase meat production, the federal government had overlooked an important fact, the sheep’s wool was difficult to clean, card, spin and weave.
During the Revival Period 1930 to 1940, a number of people and groups became interested in reviving Navajo weaving. Mary Wheelwright of Boston and L H McSparron of Chinle Trading Post succeeded in convincing local Navajo women to experiment with vegetable dyes in their rug art weaves, and furnished them sketches of designs taken largely from Transition Period Navajo blankets and weavings. Their efforts are predominantly responsible for the quality of pastel colors, and superior manufacture of the contemporary Navajo blankets, rugs and weavings now produced from the eastern part of the reservation.
During the Regional Rug Period 1940 to 1974, several geographic areas of the southwest, emerged as Navajo Indian rug art or style centers. Navajo Indian blankets, rugs and weavings from one region became notably different from Navajo Indian blankets and rugs of another region. Each regional rug was embodied with its own distinctive style, art, color, dye and design; and the weaving style center was easily recognized. Four areas in the southwest had by the early 1900s emerged as style centers: Crystal, Ganado, Chinle and Wide Ruins. Two more geographic areas achieved regional style status in the 1940s: Two Grey Hills and Yei. Three additional area Navajo rug and weaving styles were accepted in the 1950s: Teec Nos Pos, Lukachukai Yei and Yeibichai, and Storm; and lastly in 1974, Burntwater was embraced as a Navajo regional style rug.
Although in days gone by, the regional areas were the sole suppliers for the Navajo blankets, rugs and weavings bearing the area names and patterns; today, Navajo rugs of all styles are woven throughout the Navajo Indian reservation. There are no longer regional rugs, only regional styles. The rug style names will probably continue, but the southwest geographic boundaries that gave birth to the regional styles are now merged. Regional styles, account for only about 25 percent of total current Navajo blanket and rug production. Most contemporary weavers do not steadfastly adhere to Navajo regional rug styles. Some weavers, regardless of their reservation home, may prefer one rug art design while residing in a different regional area. The majority of weavers like to mix styles, and experiment with dyes, color compositions and designs, and may create a weave totally different from what is usually created in the southwest region in which they live. These Navajo blankets, rugs and weavings are called general rugs, and represent 40% of the contemporary Navajo southwest Indian blankets and rug production. Another exceptional artist, is the Navajo who challenges herself to
weave the complex Navajo specialty rugs and blankets.
In the decade that has passed, a renaissance has taken place, Navajo rug production has increased immensely, artistic quality is at an all time high, and the value of these Navajo rugs is soaring.