Cultural Threads

Stark Museum hosts overview of Navajo weaving traditions
Story by Andy Coughlan


A view of the opening room of “Navajo Weaving: Tradition and Trade” at the
Stark Museum of Art in Orange.

When The Stark Museum of Art in Orange decided to institute a new textile storage system, it was the job of Terri Fox, collections and exhibition manager, to re-visit the museum’s collection of Navajo weavings.

The job involved documenting the extensive collection, many of which had never been seen in public. Fox had an idea — as part of the rehousing project and the new textile storage system, it would be a good time to show the breadth of the museum’s collection.

The result is the fascinating exhibit, “Navajo Weaving: Tradition and Trade,” on display through July 12.

The Unknown Diné (Navajo) artist. Chief Blanket, Third-phase. c. 1875-1880, natural handspun wool and bayeta (unraveled wool cloth); indigo dye, 51 1/4 x 71 3/4 inches,

The textiles were valued for their connection to the spirit of the community, and many represent spiritual figures. In Navajo beliefs, the spirit Spider Woman taught the people to weave. It was her gift to the people.

The Navajo owned sheep, and the early weavings were made from wool.

Originally, the tribes were called the Diné, or Dineh, which simply means “the people.” The Spanish called the Diné “Apache de Navajo,” which means Apache of the cultivated fields. So Navajo is an external word that has become dominant. Anthropologists might argue that the very name symbolizes the fate of Native Americans, but that is for another essay.

The Navajo used traditional, natural wools and dyes, but with the influx of European settlers, they incorporated imported textiles and artificial colors.

The weavers are primarily women, and they draw on the community for inspiration.

The Navajo of the late 1700s were accomplished craftswomen. The earliest designs featured minimal stripes set against raw wool. One of the first pieces in the exhibition is the most affecting. It has holes worn through years of use, and the design is simple, indicating that it was made to use, to function, and that decoration was a secondary concern.

The weaving designs fall into phases:

The first phase incorporates simple stripes and minimal colors.

The second phase still used the stripes as the foundation, but also added broken color blocks as embellishment.

The third phase began to work diamonds into the pattern.

The weavings take many hours to produce. One small piece on display, which measures only 11 by 14 inches, took six or seven weeks to make. It is worth remembering that when faced with the massive 150-by-96 inch rug on display. Each piece is typically made by a single weaver — it is not a team effort.

As time passed, the Navajo began to trade with the Spanish and others. It is interesting to see how they appropriated materials from the Europeans who settled the West and created trading posts. One vividly-colored piece from the mid-1800s uses Saxony yarn of German manufacture. It is bright red with a pattern dominated by diamonds and zigzag lines.

In the 1860s, trading posts sprang up throughout the reservation system. The posts were like general stores, carrying supplies such as flour, coffee, canned goods, medicine and other items. The Navajo traded weavings, baskets, wool, sheep, pelts and other items, and the traders spread the weavings to a wider market across the country. The trading posts that settled the area became part of the Navajo’s community, giving them access to different materials and influences.

The demand for the weavings as decoration influenced the styles associated with the particular trading post as the traders tried to determine what style had most value in the Anglo market. The weavings are the perfect marriage between art and function, between tradition and commerce.

The weavings in the exhibition represent five major trading posts:

Ganado is about 28 miles west of Window Rock in Arizona. It was established as a post in 1871 and was named after Navajo leader Ganado Mucho. Trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell acquired the post in 1878, and the white traders developed new markets for Navajo weavings. They wanted weavings that could be marketed as rugs or art objects for Anglo-American homes, and this affected size and designs, which were encouraged to draw on older traditional patterns. The Ganado rug is characterized by the use of a deep, dramatic red, which contrasts with grays, whites and black. The Ganado rug has borders and usually has a large central motif of a diamond or a cross.

The Two Grey Hills Trading Post, established in 1897, is located about 30 miles south of Shiprock, N.M. Weavers in the community developed a style that avoided bright colors, especially red, in favor of natural wools of whites, browns and black. The traders encouraged the weavers to use a fine thread. The designs are elaborate geometrical patterns, quite often composed of stepped designs.

The original Teec Nos Pos Trading Post was located in the Four Corners, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. Teec Nos Pos (pronounced tease nhas phas) means circle of cottonwoods. These weavers developed intricate designs. Bright colors outline elaborate geometrical designs, with the main area using wools of natural colors.  The outline colors, such as green, orange, turquoise or other bright hues, are often commercial yarns or aniline dyed wool, and the rug usually has a broad border that contains a design such as an interlocking H.

The Wide Ruins Trading Post is located on a site with Ancestral Puebloan ruins about 23 miles south of Ganado, Ariz. The post was established in the late 1800s. In 1938, William and Sallie Lippincott bought the store and encouraged textiles using vegetal dyes. The Wide Ruins rugs feature a pattern of basic stripes and bands without borders, with ornamentation of arrows, diamonds, chevrons and other geometrical figures contained within the pattern of stripes. The use of vegetal dyes creates soft pastel colors.

RUG, YEIBEICHAI, attributed to Yah-nah-pah, Diné (Navajo) (1889-1913),
1910, natural handspun wool; commercial dye, 61 x 46.25 inches.
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, 82.900.59

Shiprock is in northwestern New Mexico and is named for the volcanic form located nearby. These weavings are known for their depictions of figures sacred to the Navajo, including the Yei (the Holy People), and the Yeibichai, the dancers who portray the Yeis. Some designs are drawn from ceremonial sand paintings. Navajo beliefs forbid depictions of sacred concepts, so these woven images were controversial. However, commerce won out as the traders sought new images for the Anglo market.

As well as weavings from the collection, the exhibition also borrows from two acclaimed contemporary weavers, D.Y. Begay and Melissa Cody.

As is typical with Stark Museum exhibitions, there is also a nod to the process. A reproduction Navajo loom is available for visitors to test their skills, and a trading post is presented in facsimile.

“Navajo Weaving: Tradition and Trade” offers a glimpse into a world where commerce drives and shapes traditional craft. But underneath it all, there is no denying the beauty and skill of the artisans.

The map, above, shows the position of the trading posts represented in “Navajo Weaving: Tradition and Trade,” at the Stark Museum of Art through July 12.

The Stark Museum of Art is located at 712 Green Ave. in Orange.

For more information, visit