Native American Navajo rugs, particularly the great ones, represent the native American Indian contribution to the world of textile production. The origins of Navajo weaving, however, are difficult to trace back before the late nineteenth century. Sheep wool was first introduced by the Spaniards several hundred years ago, but Navajo rug or blanket production only seems to have begun after American control was established. Many of the designs were supplied to the Indians by white American entrepreneurs, sometimes using Oriental tribal rug patterns. Consequently, those Navajo rugs are most prized that have a more authentic design tradition related to other native American crafts or media. Those that have vegetable dyes predating the introduction of industrial synthetics are also most desirable.
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Navajo rugs and native American Indian blankets are intricately geometric, tightly woven rugs in which the weft is packed tightly, making the warp invisible. It is commonly believed that the Pueblo Indians first introduced weaving to the Navajo Indian at the beginning of the 18th century. This belief is underscored by the fact that Navajo Indians commonly wove their creations on a Pueblo loom. At this time, wool was widely available, as the Spanish had introduced sheep to the Pueblos in the 1600’s. The oldest surviving instances of Navajo weaving date back to 1805.
Widely known for striking patterns, worked in dyed fibers ranging from soft, natural colors to more brightly colored yarns dyed with synthetic color, Navajo rugs come in many different styles of design. Wide bands of color mixed with stepped diamonds and other geometric patterns make this a very recognizable rug-type. Initially, there were few colors available from which to dye the fibers. Indigo was a very expensive and hard dye to render. Yellow was made from rabbit brush, a plant covered in yellow flowers. Occasionally green could be made from mixing the indigo and rabbit brush dyes. White and black were also used. Red, until the late 1800’s, was only available by taking apart red trade cloth. Today, dyes are made from widely available organic dye sources and by synthetic means.
A few examples of well-known patterns made today are Western Reservation, Wide Ruins, and Ganado. Though sometimes used on floors, Navajo rugs are more often used as wall-hangings.
History of Antique Native American Navajo Woven Textiles and Rugs
During times when Native American tribes dominated the western portion of the Americas, the Navajo tribe took on the artisan skills of textiles, fabric and rug weaving. This wasn’t a skill that originated with the tribe, however, Instead, the Navajo learned from their neighboring Pueblo tribes.
Throughout those days, the Navajo tribes people became more and more of an imminent danger to other tribes as well as to the Spanish villages being settled in the area. As a result, Captain Kit Carson attacked the Navajo and imprisoned the tribe at Fort Sumner in New Mexico throughout the year of 1863.
During their time of imprisonment, the tribe stopped textile making simply because they did not have access to materials and means to continue the craft. When the Native American Navajo people were eventually returned to their lands, fabric weaving was picked up once again.
Even in the earliest days, Navajo rugs and textiles were well known for their unique, colorful designs and durability making them last for years. With the advent of machine spun wool manufactured in the Germantown area of Pennsylvania, the Navajo had access to brighter, more durable color dyes for their textiles.
The machine created dyes allowed the Native Americans access to colors and designs previously unknown in the west. As the railroad was built to connect the East to the West, trading posts began to pop up along the way and this allowed for a commercialization of Navajo weavings. The native american tribe soon found that switching from blankets to rugs was a lucrative operation and the textiles became popular throughout the country.
Thanks to a revival of traditional textile artisan-ship at the turn of the twentieth century and spurred by the Fred Harvey Company, the Navajo found success by moving back to hand spun wool and dyes for their weaving. In modern times, the nineteenth century Navajo rugs and Navajo chief blankets especially are considered highly collectible. In fact, Chief Blankets are extremely highly prized for their beauty and rarity.
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