An Introduction to Navajo Weaving
I am going to approach my next subject, Navajo weavings, a little differently. Rather than jump into the history of Navajo weaving, I am going first talk about the weavings themselves and the equipment that was used. In part two of this blog I will talk about the actual history.
I would guess that anyone reading this blog already has some knowledge about Navajo weavings. Whether you’ve read about them, seen pictures of them or, if you’re lucky, have seen the weavings in person, the term Navajo weaving will bring a very specific image to mind. You will remember the stripes and the patterns, the symmetry, the lack of fringe and the density of the fabric. You might also get an image in your head of the vertical looms which are unique to Navajo weaving. Navajo weavings share certain aspects with other weavings, but they also have distinguishing qualities that set them far apart from all other weavings.
The quality and beauty and tradition of Navajo weaving continues and thrives to this day. The journey of this weaving is the journey of a nation. There is a common thread that follows from the first weaving traditions borrowed from the Pueblos to the rugs that are meticulously woven today. But before I launch into that journey, I want to talk about the process of Navajo weaving from the preparation of the loom to the weaving itself.
Warp which is usually wool for endurance is not put directly on a Navajo loom. This is a very important difference between the way any other upright loom is prepared for weaving. The Navajo loom itself is just a simple, sturdy frame. Often they were made from tree trunks. The point was to be sturdy. The warp itself is prepared off the loom and then placed onto the loom.
Because the Navajos at one point became nomadic, this was a key aspect to their weaving. They could remove the a weaving in progress from a loom and travel to a new place where they would build another loom and place the weaving in progress on it. Check out this YouTube video on how to prepare the warp.
The continuous warp is prepared in such a way that the top and bottom is twined to a rod. A figure eight is used to wrap the warp around two poles that are attached to a warping frame. The width and height of the weaving is determined at this point. An edging cord is twined on each end of the weaving which spaces the warp and creates the end selvedges. Next, these twined ends are bound onto poles with heavy twine. Those poles will be attached to the loom frame with heavy cords. This is what creates the tension on the warp. The spacing of the warp will be finely adjusted once on the loom.
When the weaving is completed, those top and bottom edges will be finished. In other words, there will be no fringe and there will be instead a row of twining. (note: there are a couple of exceptions to this no fringe rule such as the Germantown weavings which in rare occasions had fringe added and the Gallup throws that were sold to train passengers in the 1920s and 30s and were not made on traditional Navajo looms. But for our purposes, I am going to be talking exclusively about the Navajo weavings made on traditional Navajo looms.)
In addition, as the weaving is made, twining can also be to the side selvedges in order to add strength and decoration. Because of this, the final weaving consists of four finished and twined selvedges with the twining emerging as strings from each corner of the weaving. A real Navajo weaving will never have fringe.
Other tools used by the Navajos include: battens, heddle rod, beaters, shuttle stick, small wooden needles, the Navajo spindle, hand carders.
Heddle rods with heddles that are attached to the warp threads (there are two, one for each shed) are used to create the shed. A batten, which is a flat stick with a point, is stuck in the shed to keep it open. Beaters are made of wood and are used to beat down the weft. A shuttle stick can be used to pass the weft through the shed. Small wooden needles are used to weave the weft once the weaving is too close to the top to use the shedding device and batten.
The Navajo spindle has a very long shaft which is rolled along the spinners thigh. Hand carders are used to prepare the wool for spinning.
What qualities are inherent in a Navajo weaving?
Navajo rugs have between 30 to 80 wefts to the linear inch which determines the quality of the weaving.
Several important aspects of a Navajo weaving set it apart from all other tapestries or weavings. As I already mentioned, they have four finished selvedges and no fringe. The design, colors and intricacy of a Navajo weaving is the creation of the weaver herself (and yes, women were the weavers although today men also sometimes are weavers). No pattern is used to create it. Rather the weaving comes from the weaver’s mind informed by her world and the world of her ancestors. I want to note here that the warps themselves are never marked. In order to create certain patterns, tuffs of fleece are stuck between the warp threads to mark spacing and then, obviously, removed as the weaving progresses.
A few very specific techniques are employed to make a Navajo weaving. The wefts are discontinuous. In order to create joins in color areas weft interlock technique is used. The two wefts loop around each other in between the warp threads rather than around the warp threads themselves. The reason for this is quite simple: it builds up less thread at the join. But it still does build up higher at the join and therefore weft has to be inserted on the sides of the join in order to build up those areas. Weaving is always done on the fell line. In other words, once the shed is created all the wefts are woven and then a new shed is created.
Even when weaving a solid stripe, the weft threads are discontinuous. The weaver will weave a weft only as far as it is comfortable for her hands or the length of the batten (the stick that is placed in the shed to keep it open . . . a wide weaving will have several battens). The joins between the wefts in solid areas are usually built up at a diagonal. The line that is created at these joins is called a “lazy line.” This allows a weaver to create a wide fabric without having the weft travel from one side to the other. Although this is not something I’ve read, from my experience weaving tapestry, this would also help eliminate pull in from the side selvedges.
And then there is the Weaver’s Pathway or Spirit Line. This is a small, thin line that extends from the center of the design field and across the border to the outer edge of the rug. It is frequently placed near a corner and its color is the same as the background color of the weaving. The concept is that the weaver must release her energy and spirit from the weaving so that she may have it to create the next one.
Symmetry both horizontally and vertically is an important design element of Navajo weavings that do not include pictures. One corner of the rug is duplicated for the other three corners. When the weaver reaches the middle of the weaving, she repeats it exactly. Since the warp is a static length, it takes great talent and technique to perfect this symmetry. When you look at a complex Navajo weaving you can see how difficult this is to accomplish.
Pictorial Navajo weavings represent a radical departure from the traditional symmetrical, patterned Navajo weavings. They are the only examples of a total random placement of images. The first examples of this date back to 1864 but with rare exceptions the first pictorial weavings did not arrive until the end of the nineteenth century.
And then there are the wedge weaves. It may have been a new way to achieve the lightening bolt designs of their eye dazzlers.
Diagonal stripes are woven which thereby distort the vertical orientation of the warps threads. This creates scalloped edges.
Cotton was initially used for Navajo (and Pueblo) weaving but gave way to wool when the spaniards introduced the Churro sheep in the 16th century. In the second half of this history I will more fully address the comings and goings of various materials for Navajo weaving.
Stay tuned for part two where I will explore the history of Navajo weaving.
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