Visual Arts

Leave It to Weaver

People like to blame the pretensions of the art mob for the churchlike quiet of museums. But the more subtle truth is that great art has a way of silencing the crowd. Having already spoken the language it was meant to speak, it leaves nothing to translate or add, nothing that people could possibly wish had been done differently. All you can do is stand back and point.

You're likely to see a lot of pointing at the Heard Museum North's exhibition "Fancy Blankets: 19th Century Navajo Textiles."

Every so often, The Heard Museum teases the public with a sampling from its extraordinary basement collection of Navajo weavings. Yet this exhibition is considerably more than a tease. Its three dozen or so works constitute the largest such display the museum has put on in a number of years.

The Fred Harvey exhibition several years ago contained a handful of weavings. However, these works weren't among them. And some haven't appeared in years.

The works here span the 1850s to 1900, a turbulent period when traditional Navajo culture underwent dramatic and searing changes.

Like other Western Indian tribes, the Navajos were being overrun by new settlers, the railroads and the United States Army. In 1864, the U.S. government forced thousands of Navajo people off their lands in northwestern New Mexico and sent them on "the long walk" -- more than 300 miles -- to an internment camp in the eastern part of the state. Despite this dislocation and repeated government efforts to change native ways, including the Navajo's looms and methods, the tribe's craftswomen never ceased weaving.

Their output ranged from the more traditional chief blankets banded with colors to serapes and dresses that dazzled the eye with vivid wedge weaves of diagonal and zigzag patterns.

Ann Marshall, the Heard's director of collections who curated the show, says "fancy" blankets made up a fourth of that production.

Part of what made them fancy, she adds, was the incorporation of factory-made yarns and cloths -- called Germantown, after the burg near Philadelphia that originally produced them. Navajo weavers used these bright, commercial yarns to turn up the color in their works and catch the eyes of more than just their own people.

Whether Navajo garments and blankets were done in subtle layers of stripes or eye-popping geometrics, they were prized both inside and outside the tribe. They were bought and traded for by other Native Americans -- especially the Apaches and Utes -- and increasing numbers of white soldiers and settlers.

Experts may quibble about which phase of Navajo weaving stands supreme. The simpler, banded blankets from the mid-1800s are extraordinary works. However, there's little dispute that Navajo textiles from the period covered by this exhibition are among the finest works of art ever to come out of the Americas.

It's difficult to fully appreciate their beauty in a museum setting. You can't touch them, so it's impossible to feel the weight and density of the weave, or the supple way the fabric molds to the body.

The museum has managed to make the experience of these glorious works more immediate by displaying them upright, wrapped around or draped over standing forms that approximate how the textiles would have looked as worn garments.

Marshall says the weavers were attuned to how and where the woven patterns would fall across the body, how horizontal bands would overlap or change direction, and how diamond shapes would fill the wearer's front or back.

One blanket in the exhibition has a complex field of zigzags across the heart and stomach areas, almost as if the pattern were meant to serve as a form of protection.

In another, the weaver used brown warps (the vertical strands in a weave) toward the sides of the blanket and white ones in the middle, lending a subtle brightness to the color and a glow to whoever wore it.

The strand-by-strand details of these works hold much of the blankets' magic.

"The older works in the exhibition tend to be the simpler ones," says Marshall. "They pretty much follow the tapestry methods of alternating strands over and under. But as you move up in time, you see them getting involved in more complex twills, where maybe they were weaving two over and three under, and coming up with all of these diagonal and diamond patterns."

This complexity also included the addition of more materials, she says.

"What the Navajo weavers would do with the trade cloth being imported is they would unravel it. In some cases, they would take it back down to fibers, then maybe they'd recard it with white wool to get pink or other colors."

Part of that practice may have stemmed from economic hardship. But economics alone don't explain the extraordinary level of visual experimentation displayed in these works.

One blanket from the late 1870s or early 1880s uses a mix of commercial and local yarns to create a wild array of zigzags and diamonds in a variety of reds, greens, blues and red-violets.

The weaver evidently combined the bright red of a commercial woolen yarn with the off-white of a yarn spun from the wool of her own sheep to come up with a soft, salmon pink.

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.

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.