Documented history of Navajo weaving is sketchy prior to the 1600s; but three major factors influenced the development of this legendary art form:
- Cultural exchange with the Pueblo peoples
- Introduction of sheep during the Spanish conquest
- Adaptation of new materials and patterns through trade with American settlers
Puebloan peoples have inhabited the Southwest for millennia and evidence of weaving by the Anasazi in the Four Corners region dates back thousands of years. Although there was a history of tension between these peoples the Athabaskan Navajo and Apaches, the Navajo absorbed much of Pueblo culture after they gave up their nomadic lifestyle. One of these adoptions included the use of the upright loom.
Weaving among the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and other pueblos was traditionally done by the men. It was much less ornate in fashion, which is perhaps one reason why it is less famous than its later Navajo counterpart.
Like the Pueblo weavers, early Navajo artists used plant fibers instead of wool. Domesticated sheep did not arrive until they accompanied the first Spanish settlers in the early 1600s.
Classic Period: Spanish Conquest
The era of Spanish incursion – from the days of the first conquistadors, to the Pueblo revolt in 1680, to the Spanish reconquista – was a crucible that galvanized the cultures of the Southwest. During this period the practice of weaving became a firmly entrenched part of the Navajo lifeway.
The Iberian churro sheep brought by the Spanish colonists were both rugged and resilient, and soon became an integral part of Navajo livelihood. Navajo farmers adapted them into an entirely new breed, known as the Navajo-Churro.
Early Navajo blankets of the “Classic” period take after the form of the Mexican serapes. These sturdy, utilitarian pieces known as diyugis were usually patterned in the natural colors of the wool, or with indigo where it was obtained through trade.
(Photo from Navajo-Churro Sheep Association)
Transition: American Expansion and Conflict
In 1864 the US government carried out a forced march of thousands of Navajo to interment camps in Bosque Redondo, where they remained for nearly 5 years before being allowed to return to their homelands.
Here the Navajo weavers were introduced to new patterns and motifs, particularly of Spanish and Near Eastern origin, that they incorporated in their work. This time marked the start of the “Transition Period” of the late 1800s, which featured the banded and toothed patterns and vivid colors that make it famous.
The status of the blankets as a highly prized trade item grew rapidly and demand extended from Mexico all the way to the northern Plains. Navajo weavers soon found a niche in catering to trading posts as the region opened up to white settlers.
By the early 1900s, the market for durable and highly ornamental rugs led to a new phase; the “Rug Period” witnessed a rapid succession of experimental new styles, fibers, and colors.
Navajo Weaving Today
Traditional weaving is of course still widely practiced among the Navajo today, with an even wider array of diversity. Because of the iconic beauty and symmetry of the Navajo style – a spirit embodied by the Navajo concept of hozho – it is widely practiced even among non-Native artists.
Navajo Weaving: Anthology – a research paper on the evolution of the artform and its changing role in Navajo culture
Navajo Lifeway – history and preservation of the Navajo-Churro sheep
Two well-known examples of Navajo weaving from the Antiques Roadshow archives:
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)