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What is a Navajo Rug?

Over here in the USA there is an obsession with the term “Navajo Rugs”. Having been to the Southwest of the Great Republic and seen the eternal turquoise skies and blazing red deserts, of mile deep ravines and lands ripped apart, I too can recognize an instant correlation between that most dramatic part of the world and the designs and color schemes favored by the Indigenous Inhabitants.

The main tribal group traditionally found in the four corners area of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah are the Navajo, who now occupy a vast reservation. As anyone who has travelled through the Navajo Reservation knows, this is a dry, desert land, of high mesas and semi-arid conditions. This is also the traditional area of the Pueblo Indians, who occupied the area one thousand years ago and most famously lived as cliff dwellers up on the Mesa Verde, and in turn are closely related to the Anasazi who lived along the river beds of the Grand Canyon.

Navajo Country
Location of Navajo Country

During the period 1000-1500 AD the Navajo gradually settled in this area, having made the journey from Alaska. In fact, some Indigenous groups in Alaska have the same parent tongue as the Navajo and can even understand parts of Navajo. The linguistic group is known as Athapascan. Navajo was also used during the war by the allies as the Japanese could not decipher it, but that is another story and one that has been widely told elsewhere.

The Pueblo Indians who occupied this region before the arrival of the Navajo had become quite sedentary and harvested seasonal crops up on the mesas. The Pueblo settlements were located in naturally defended cliff walls and survive virtually intact today. The Navajo, on the other hand, were more wild and unruly, making their living by raiding other Indian Tribes.

Cliff Palace Mesa Verde
Pueblo Cliff Dwellings - Mesa Verde

Many attest that the idea of weaving first passed from the Pueblo to the Navajo and that is almost certainly most likely. The Pueblo had been weaving, using simple over and under techniques in order to makes baskets and other objects, for centuries. Soon, the Navajo were surpassing their Pueblo neighbors in the weaving arts.

Navajo Loom and Weaver
Navajo Weaver and Loom

Now, to hark back to my first sentence, there is a widespread fascination with Navajo Rugs in the United States. This general wonder at all things Indian first took place in the mid 1850s when the train opened up the Southwest to the average American. Indian designs, folklore, belief systems and associated products like woven blankets, became immensely popular in the later 1800s and remain so today.

In fact, there is hardly a hotel west of the Mississippi that does not have a Navajo blanket or rug. Just take a look at this snapshot from The Shining showing one of the many marvelous Navajo rugs in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado.

Stanley Hotel Estes Park Colorado
Stanley Hotel - Estes Park Colorado

Glancing back over the terrain we have just covered it is clear that the concept behind a Navajo Rug has all of the ingredients of a hybridization. The Navajo, originally arrived from the northwest, dominated the indigenous Pueblo Tribe, but learned the art of weaving along the way. Well, what did that old Navajo weaving look like?

Navajo Weave
Navajo Weave

Navajo weave is basically a relatively simple type of looped flat weave with the yarn pulled very tight to compress the warp and weft strings. Plain stripes or geometric motifs predominate. The very earliest surviving remnants were found in the so-called “Massacre Cave” where a large number of Navajo who had taken shelter in a cave were killed in 1805 AD. This piece of fabric is typical of the earliest known weaves, comprising only straight lines, and woven in the four dominant types of sheep wool - white, black, grey and brown. No dyes were involved.

Massacre Cave Fragment
“Massacre Cave” Fragment. c.1805 AD

As the name “Massacre Cave” suggests, the Navajo were faced with difficult times as first the Mexican-Spanish made their way up to Santa Fe in 1600 AD and claimed the Navajo territory as their own. The Mexicans technically oversaw this anarchic region for the next few centuries, with no real attempt to rule effectively, rather, raiding the Indian Tribes themselves for slaves and other goods.

The contact with the Mexicans meant access to new materials. The first two products of note to make their way into the world of Navajo arts were indigo-blue as a dye and the introduction of wool. For the first time Navajo blankets were made with wool instead of just cotton. The use of blue is evident in this example of a “Chief Blanket Phase 1” which combines blue with traditional sheep wools with natural colors. Again, note that this early blanket is simply a striped garment with no ornamentation.

Chief Blanket Phase 1
Chief Blanket Phase 1. c.1800 AD

More Spanish influences may be noted in the use of the so-called serrated Saltillo Diamond, which later made its way into many Navajo designs but was thoroughly a Spanish motif. Also, as may be noted from the color of this Saltillo Serape, products made by the Spaniards using red bayeta made their way to Navajo lands, where the red thread was undone and employed in new Navajo weavings.

Saltaliso Serape Blanket
Saltillo Serape
Chief Blanket Phase 2
Chief Blanket Phase 2. c. 1800 AD

The Chief Blankets are the most diagnostic Navajo weaving and are so-called because it was usually only the chief who could afford to wear one. A Chief Blanket Phase 1 with blue lines was valued recently on Antiques Roadshow to be worth in excess of $400,000, so that is a measure of the market for these older pieces.

Still, the salient point to emerge from all of this is that Navajo designs were originally comprised of stripes, not patterned motifs, even up until the later variations at the end of the century.

Chief Blanket Phase 3
Chief Blanket Phase 3. c. 1870 AD

To return to the emerging theme – Navajo Rugs are a hybridization, of Pueblo influences, Navajo influences, Spanish influences, and, last but not least, Anglo influences.

By the mid-1800s the American Government had pushed west towards Spanish territory and in the 1850s had pushed Mexico out. The Navajo, as was the fate of most Indigenous Indians, were treated particularly harshly, being rounded up and forced to march 300 miles to Bosque Redondo in southeastern New Mexico. Many died as a result. Fortunately, within four years the error had been acknowledged and the Navajo were allowed to return to their ancestral lands.

In this wild frontier some hardy and enterprising types set up trading posts where Indian made goods could be sold to travelers. Some of these trading posts were established at places, many of whose names are associated with a particular rug design - Ganado, Gallup, Crystal, Teec Nos Pos, Two Gray Hills and Wide Ruins.

Ganado Trading Post
Ganado Trading Post

But as we have already seen but have yet to comment upon – the Navajo only ever made blankets, or Serapes. They never made rugs!

That is, at least until the westerners on the Trading Posts, sought to get the Navajo weavers to make rugs (see “The Trading Posts and Navajo Rugs”). In order to do this, they imported machine-spun yarn from Germantown Pennsylvania, Analine dyes, and Asiatic rug designs to serve as patterns. At the turn of the century rugs from the Caucasus were very much in demand. As a result many of these basic designs were incorporated.

So many of the motifs, the diamonds, the strange guls, have no real significance for the Navajo, who were weaving purely for a western market. Anyone searching for deeper meaning in these patterns is sadly led astray. These designs are the product of the mind of western man. But the rather strange point to take away from this all is how the concepts behind a Navajo rug as made today are an incredible hybrid of influences from all over the place.

Caucasian Rug used as Navajo Rug template
An old Caucasian rug as a template for a Navajo Design

Southwest Looms have taken some of these classic designs and translated them into rugs – a must for the adobe hut of any Southwest enthusiast. Here at Southwest looms we are pleased to think that our Dreamcatcher Line of Navajo rugs takes old designs, so typical of the colorful vibrancy of Navajo country and culture, and have produced a thing of beauty. Different colors of wool weft produce the design. Here are a few great examples of our reproduction work in Navajo Rugs:

Antique Serape Rug Serape Rug by Southwest Looms
An antique Serape and the N-12 Serape by Southwest Looms
Antique Cheif Blanket with Crosses Chief Blanket Rug by Southwest Looms
A Chief Blanket c.1870 and the N-20 Chief Blanket by Southwest Looms
Antique Navajo Dazzler Blanket Navajo Dazzler Rug by Southwest Looms
An original “Dazzler” rug and an N-21 Dazzler from Southwest Looms

Our Navajo reproductions allow clients the opportunity to showcase this look in their homes at an affordable price. Original Navajos are expensive and too rare and fragile to be used as floor covering. Very few large Navajo rugs were woven and when available are very expensive. It is difficult to find authentic Navajo rugs larger than 5x7. Our reproductions afford the opportunity to have this look in large rugs (6x9 - 10x14) or even larger for custom orders.

To learn how these designs developed into rugs click here for “The Trading Post and Navajo Rugs”