From big-city auction houses to remote trading posts, collectors have been searching for textiles of the American Southwest for more than 100 years.
The most highly collected and recognized form, the Navajo blanket, has shifted from an outer garment wrapped around the shoulders to a decoration on floors and walls. Hanging a traditional blanket vertically duplicates how it would have looked covering the doorway of a Navajo hogan.
Legend says Spider Woman, the creative deity from the underworld, taught the Navajo how to weave. Historians believe weaving in the Southwest originated with the ancestors of the Pueblo people. They were already using looms when Spanish explorers arrived. The colonization of New Mexico beginning in 1598 initiated trade between the Spanish and the Pueblo. Increasingly oppressive Spanish rule sparked a deadly revolt in 1680. When the Spanish reconquered the territory in 1692, many Pueblos took refuge in the Navajo lands.
The Pueblos taught Navajo women loom weaving, a technical art that takes years of practice to learn. Having acquired sheep from the Pueblo and Spanish, the Navajo traditionally used wool for their textiles. Finely woven Navajo blankets were famous for their ability to shed water. While Pueblo weaving has always been for Indian use, the Navajo traded their textiles with other Indians and Anglos. A central diamond surrounded by eight triangular elements at the edges creates a distinctive image that has made the Third Phase blankets the best-known Navajo weavings.
The opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1822 and acquisition of the territory by the United States in 1848 resulted in increased recognition of Navajo weaving. Walk in Beauty: The Navajo and Their Blankets by Anthony Berlant and Mary Hunt Kahlenberg (1977, Little Brown & Co.) states that in 1849, when Lt. James Simpson led the first official U.S. expedition into Navajo country, he noted in his journal that the Navajo people made what were “probably the best blankets in the world.”
While economic conditions and changing lifestyles of the Navajo people have affected the progression of their art form, demand for it has grown. Auctioneers regularly schedule sales highlighting woven textiles within the greater category of American-Indian art.
The Cincinnati auction house Cowan’s made a big impact on the future market for American Indian weavings in 2002 when they sold a collection deaccessioned by the Western Reserve Historical Society. Among the items sold at that auction was a Classic Period Navajo child’s wearing blanket (46 by 31½ inches) that sold for $48,300. A Navajo Third Phase chief blanket (67 by 55 inches) sold for $26,450. Both textiles had once belonged to a U.S. Army cavalry officer who was stationed in the West in the late 1860s.
While museum-quality pieces from the 19th century like these are scarce, later weavings are readily available and more affordable to collectors and decorators.
For all the work and craftsmanship, Navajo blankets are beautiful decorating pieces that never go out of style.
Americans have long held an appreciation for Indian art, which became widely accessible in the first half of the 20th century. The railroads opened the Southwest to travelers during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and during that period people could bring these weavings home because they were easy to transport. There are many blankets from that time frame, and people continue to use them for decorating.
The 1920s marked the first heyday of the popularizing of Navajo textiles. Wealthy people often collected them. It was not uncommon to see Persian carpets on the floor of a home mixed with several Navajo rugs. People bought them for their aesthetic beauty as well as the fact that they are an important part of American culture.
While Classic period (1850-1875) and Transitional (1875-1890) weavings are the realm of serious collectors, nice 1920s-vintage rugs are still available.
Collectors evaluating a weaving will look for the caliber of the weave, the visual impact of the design and the technical difficulty behind its creation. A good example is the Teec Nos Pos style developed by weavers from the Four Corners area where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. Teec Nos Pos is a multicolored weaving with almost all of the design elements outlined in a different color. The technical expertise to weave a Teec Nos Pos rug is great, and they are in high demand.
Another important factor in evaluating post-Classic period Navajo textiles is whether the weaving is done using native handspun wool, which is generally more desirable than a comparable piece woven with commercial machine-spun yarn.
Many 1950s weavings that are made of commercial yarn, which drastically affects the value downward.
There are, however, Classic Period Navajo blankets that are made of machine-spun yarn.
Following their surrender to Kit Carson in January 1864, more than 8,000 Navajo men, women and children were forced from their homeland and made to endure internment near Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Deprived of their flocks, Navajo weavers were introduced to machine-spun yarn produced in Germantown (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania. Blankets made from these yarns are called Germantowns. Over the years the term “Germantown” has come to mean any three- or four-ply machine-spun yarns from any Eastern mill.
After signing a peace treaty, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868, but their way of life was forever changed.
Another factor in evaluating American Indian textiles is the color: natural wool, vegetal or factory-made aniline dyes, or a combination of these. While tastes change in this regard, buyers currently prefer a brighter palette, even though it takes a weaver twice as long to make an all vegetal-dyed homespun rug.
The cryptic names that have been given to styles of Navajo weavings often denote the town or trading post where they originated. Examples are Crystal, New Mexico, and Ganado, Arizona. Weavings whose place of origin cannot be pinpointed are often identified by region, such as Western Reservation in Arizona.
Because modern reproductions are being made on mechanical looms in Mexico and other foreign countries, it is advisable for novice collectors to buy from knowledgeable dealers and auctioneers who guarantee what they sell.
Collectors also should learn as much as possible about the many styles, weaving techniques and materials.
—BURNTWATER: Weavers around Burnt Water, Ariz., developed this new style in the late 1960s. Building on design elements from Ganado and Two Grey Hills styles, Burntwater type weavings often feature bordered geometric designs with central, terraced diamonds. The distinguishing characteristic is the use of yarns whose pastel colors are achieved from the use of local vegetal dyes.
—CHINLE: Developed in the 1930s in the Canyon de Chelly region of northeastern Arizona and named after the town nearby, this modern classic style is now woven across the Navajo reservation. Chinle weavings are typically borderless and characterized by alternating plain stripes with horizontal bands of geometric designs. Colors most often are pastel or earth tones, but they can also be bright colors.
—CRYSTAL: Navajos on the western side of the Chuska Mountains near Crystal, New Mexico, began supplying textiles for John B. Moore’s mail-order catalogs in the early 1900s. These old-style Crystal weavings featuring bordered designs with geometric patterns later influenced the work of the Two Grey Hills weavers on the other side of the mountains. Since the late 1930s Crystal textiles have been known for having golden tones and horizontal bands that include “wavy” lines. Colors are usually muted earth tones but may include pastels and pinks.
—GANADO: This famous style originated at the trading post near Ganado, Arizona, where owner Juan Lorenzo Hubbell began trading with Navajo in the late 1870s. He was influential in the development of the weaving style in that area and encouraged the weavers to improve the quality of their textiles. He preferred natural wool colors and deep aniline dyed red. The National Park Service has run the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site since 1967.
—KLAGETOH: meaning “Hidden Springs,” Klagetoh is a community south of Ganado on the Navajo Reservation in northeast Arizona. Though Ganado and Klagetoh weavings typically have similar central diamond motifs, those from the latter have a predominantly gray background.
—TEEC NOS POS: Named for a settlement in northeast Arizona, Teec Nos Pos textiles traditionally have been produced by Navajo people living around the Four Corners area. Since the turn of the 20th century, these boldly colored textiles have exhibited Persian rug design influences elements including a central design element and a wide border.
—TWO GREY HILLS: Named for a former trading post near U.S. Route 666 in northwest New Mexico, Two Grey Hills textiles are typically fine quality weavings of undyed handspun wool in white, brown, black and gray, and feature strong geometric designs. Designs are strong, crisp geometric patterns. Later textiles may contain commercially prepared wool.
—WIDE RUINS: This style is named for the former Wide Ruins Trading Post, where it originated about 1940. Located along U.S. Route 191 south of Ganado, Arizona., the trading post burned in 1986. The Wide Ruins-style rug is borderless and characterized by horizontal bands with stepped diamonds. Vegetable-dyed wool produces the pastel earth tones seen in these finely woven textiles, which evolved from the Chinle style.