Leave It to Weaver

Navajo textiles loom large in Heard Museum blanket show

The impact of using these commercial yarns wasn't just visual. Because their textures and thicknesses were more homogenous than homespun yarns, they actually felt different. They were coarser and slightly harder. You can see that shift in texture as areas made with one kind of yarn transition to ones made with another.

Marshall says that so many outside influences had played into Navajo weaving before the mid-1800s that identifying what's purely Navajo has never been easy.

Historians speculate that the tribe picked up weaving in the late 1600s or early 1700s from the Pueblos. The textiles slowly evolved from the extraordinary chief blankets with bands of colors to textiles featuring larger blocks of color. Those blocks then grew into lozenge and diamond shapes. The Navajos probably learned from Hispanic weavers how to weave the straight diagonals in some of those shapes without having to terrace the pattern lines.

The Heard Museum is displaying Navajo weavings as they would have appeared as garments.
Craig Smith
The Heard Museum is displaying Navajo weavings as they would have appeared as garments.

Details

Runs through summer 2001. Call 480-488-9817
Heard Museum North, 34505 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale

Marshall says the loom -- a simple, upright wooden structure still used by Navajo weavers -- might be the most intrinsic part of the Navajo textile tradition.

"They wove from the bottom up," she says. "So gravity made the textile tighter and tighter as it rose from the bottom."

Some of these woolens -- now more than 100 years old -- still appear to have been so tightly woven that it's easy to imagine their original natural coating of lanolin repelling a downpour.

Though tribal weavers in the second half of the 1800s were producing blankets and garments for an increasing range of outside customers, they were constantly weaving details that said, essentially, "This is me."

These might appear simply as a single, different-colored thread in some blankets, or as a few barely visible "lazy lines," which slightly waver the woven patterns in others.

Whatever their form, they're reminders that Navajo weavings did more than provide protection and warmth. They conveyed things that couldn't be said in any other way.

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