The craft and beauty of Navajo weaving

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Friday, July 9th 2021
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“Each coloured section of a blanket has natural variation. That’s the organic dyes: each yarn is slightly different. 

“Then there’s the different types of dye. The weaver might deliberately mix together natural dyes like a cochineal red, with an aniline one. That’s what you can see in the Third Phase Chief’s Blanket [above].

“But laying across all of that there’s a seeming randomness to it. Like indigo yarns extended or inserted for no apparent reason. 

"This isn’t inaccuracy: the weaving is very personal. Actually spiritual. The Navajo feel they are weaving themselves into the cloth, and go where feels right.”

This is Peter Middleton (above), of the brand Wythe, talking to me recently about his passion for Navajo crafts. 

I originally interviewed Peter for a different piece - about the design process at Ralph Lauren. But at the end we got to talking about his studies, and why he loved and collected Navajo weavings. 

It's a tradition I know little about, but is very current given how fashionable Southwestern crafts have been in recent years. 

So we arranged to talk again the following week. To delve into more detail. 

Navajo work is the richest and most developed native weaving in the United States. 

There are other traditions. Tribes in the US northeast and Pacific northwest practised it, but usually with vines and other plants, as they didn't have access to cotton and wool. 

The Hopi and the Zuni, both neighbouring tribes to the Navajo in the US southwest, also weave. Indeed it's likely the Hopi originally taught the craft to the Navajo. There's also a rich Hispanic tradition (Rio Grande blankets) and the Mexicans may in turn have taught the Hopi. 

But the Navajo - as with other crafts like pottery and silver - took on and developed the craft, making it richer, more varied and unique. 

"They were a little bit like the Japanese with fashion," says Peter. "They watched and they absorbed. And then they ran with it."

One reason Navajo weaving has become so well-known is because it is the richest in the US, and the United States is so influential. 

Ralph Lauren is a particular fan, and has consistently included designs inspired by it in his collections* - starting with the famous Santa Fe collection in 1981. Indeed, one of the easiest ways to see great examples of weavings today is in RRL stores.

(Pictured above is one of Ralph Lauren's homes, above the RRL store in East Hampton.)

The Japanese, always inspired by Americana, have then taken on Navajo designs and worked them into their own brands and products, as have other brands around the world.

But Navajo weaving does deserve its reputation purely on merit. In that regard, it should be considered among other famous weaving traditions, from Persian rugs to Indian saris. 

The process is most similar to Kilim weaving, which comes from most countries that were once part of (or influenced by) the Persian empire - Iran, Turkey, the Balkans etc. 

This is because it’s a tapestry technique: the work is done on vertical looms, with warp yarns set vertically on a wooden frame and then the weft interwoven between them by hand, before being pushed down. 

“Compared to any other tradition, Navajo weaving is so idiosyncratic though,” says Peter.

“The women don’t weave horizontally, for example, as you might expect and as someone like the Hopi do. Instead it’s woven in patches - they start with a particular area in front of them, do that, and then move onto another area just above or to the side.”

This working in sections contributes to the characteristic diagonals of a Navajo weaving. Most designs involve diamonds, or figures with diagonals at the edges. In more recent times it is these figures that have been pulled across onto bags or cushion covers.

Then there is a technique called wedge weaving, where the warp is pulled across, hard, at regular intervals, to create a wavy texture. 

You can see that in the image below: the pattern already looks a little playful, but then you notice the direction of the warp, and realise actually it’s pretty balanced given how all-over-the-place the underlying weave is. 

There are a couple of other factors that contribute to this organic feel. 

One is that it’s considered taboo for Navajo to plan the design - because it is meant to be an intuitive, spontaneous expression. So nothing is even sketched in the sand: the blanket just develops as the weaver works. 

The other is that precision itself is considered to be impersonal, unspiritual. So designs are always going to be a little expressionistic. “If you compare the number of weft lines on a blanket - on the right and the left - they’re never the same,” says Peter. “Never.” 

Weavers sometimes also leave one loose thread in the work, as a means for their soul - which is literally in the weaving while they are working on it - to escape. 

[Above: A saddle blanket from around 1940. These are usually woven in two halves, to fold under the saddle and provide two layers of cushioning]

Another imperfection that can be picked up on if you look closely, is a diagonal line showing where the woman (it was always women) left off weaving one day, and came back the next. 

These are sometimes called ‘lazy lines’, but this is rather ungenerous. 

Because the point of the designs is that they are personal and expressive. This is not like a Neapolitan tailor trying to convince you that bad stitching merely reveals the beauty of handwork.

It’s more like an expressionist painter, adding colours and peculiarities because it’s how they feel. 

Cloth has always been one of the aspects I’ve loved most about clothing - whether it’s hand-woven tweed from Harris or hand-patched Boro from Japan (shown above, at Sri Threads). 

There’s something particularly special, perhaps authentic, about clothing yourself in materials that you understand and have a connection with. 

This extends to decorative textiles too. I have one piece of handwoven linen hanging on our wall that was handed down from my wife’s Portuguese great-great-grandmother. It is almost 150 years old and shows no signs of age.

So I loved learning about Navajo weaving from Peter, and from various other books and resources. The best among these, by the way, are the two books by Anthony Berlant and Mary Hunt: Walk in Beauty and The Navajo Blanket.

The first sees the weaving through the prism of the Navajo’s history, while the second has more academic detail on the weavings themselves. 

I was also, as you might expect, tempted to buy something myself. 

The best resource for this - and most information on Navajo crafts - is probably the Shiprock Gallery in Santa Fe. The owner Jed (above), is fantastic at explaining the history and details of each rug or blanket. He originally helped Ralph Lauren put together much of his collection. 

The problem is price. Small pieces like saddle blankets are around $3,000 and big rugs run into tens of thousands. This is antique art we're talking about.

An alternative is to commission something from a modern weaver. There are many on Instagram, and Ortegas (below) is worth looking at for a current weaver in the Chimayo tradition. Pieces are smaller, and perhaps less idiosyncratic, but no less authentic. 

Many thanks to Peter and Jed for their help with this article. Peter’s brand is Wythe, and Shiprock can be found here

*This could lead into an interesting discussion of what constitutes inspiration and what theft - something Ralph Lauren has been accused of in the past. I’ll leave that for a separate article though, if people are interested.

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Rodrigo

Chipeta Trading Co is also a great source for Navajo weavings, although they specialise more in high quality silver jewellery (comparable quality level to Shiprock). I have bought from Don in the past and he is a pleasure to deal with.
For something more affordable, particular for those of us UK based, Wilde Ones has a good selection of Navajo rugs and blankets.

Fredrik

I started follow this forum when I was living in London for eleven years… now back in Stockholm since many years. I never make a comment before – hopefully its never to late! Absolutly wonderful article very inspiring (I work as an artist, painter) and many of my works have involved geometrical patterns and the illusion of weaving and fabrics. This article put this subject together with my interest for style and tailoring and the craft, history behind it. For those readers with a more particular interest in this, check up Anni Albers, textile artist and printmaker edjucated from Bauhaus, there was an great exhibition at Tate Modern 2018 with her and the exhibition catalouge is well made and nice.

Simon, keep the fantastic work up!
All the best
//Fredrik

Fredrik

Thanks, there is some very interesting Swedish textile tradition especially from the province Dalarna and Hälsingland. Fun to hear that you speak about it with Saman and Dag!

RolleFC

And don’t forget the many beutiful weavings from Skåne, agedynor etc.

JJ

Whilst we’re on the Albers’ – the Josef Albers book The Interaction of Colour is very interesting. Good exercises on how the same colour can appear drastically different depending on what’s its paired with and the ration of each colour etc. The exercises become more complex as the book progresses. Fascinating.

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Tom

Hi Simon, an interesting topic and history, and beautiful designs. In addition to any discussion on inspiration/theft, it may be worth considering representation; eg, whose narratives and shops dominate the market.

JJ

So did you buy one??

Thomas

Beautiful stuff.
I read years ago that Navajo women made the first computer chips (when they were made by hand). Apparently, they were the only ones who could remember the complex patterns required to assemble. I cannot verify whether it’s true, but the story stuck with me.

Magnus

Very nice article, Simon. I knew little about Navajo craft before this, but I can certainly see why it has become popular recently.
I would definitely be interested in reading more about Swedish textiles in a future article. I was pretty taken by the antique rug posted on the Saman Amel instagram a few days ago

Andrew Poupart

I’ve collected Navajo weavings for more than 30 years, and other Southwestern native American art as well. The level of skill and artistry, especially in the Two Grey Hills area weavings are as fine as any hand-woven art anywhere in the world.
When considering a weaving for purchase, you must let the weaving speak to you. You will know when it is the one you should purchase. If a weaving declines to speak to you then move on. A beautiful, large, Storm Pattern weaving once called to me and I passed it by. I’ve regretted it ever since.
If you are interested in Navajo art, you must visit Navajo country and visit the trading posts on the reservation or close by. Cameron is a great one and Shiprock is another (not the Santa Fe gallery). Much of the finest art is only for sale on the Rez.

Dr Peter

Great article! Last year, I picked up a vintage overshirt/shirt jacket made of Navajo blanket cloth. It was a little faded with age, but that gave the whole garment a lovely patina. The patterns were very much like the ones you show, and the colours were bright and sunny, mostly browns, reds and golds with thick black lines separating the areas of colour. It’s a unique item, and I had not seen one of those before so I picked it up. The price was very low, around $15 or so. It will be perfect paired with dark brown or chestnut trousers, and a solid white or blue shirt, for Fall wear here in Wisconsin.

Dr Peter

And indeed it is. Thank you, Simon. May I also add how much I enjoy your occasional forays into cloth and the great variety of it seen around the world.

Mitchell Moss

Thanks for the post and bringing light on the beautiful tradition of Navajo art. My family has a long history with the Southwest, and with Navajo artwork. My paternal grandparents met while living in New Mexico, when they both lived in Los Alamos after WWII, working on a secret government project (my grandma was a mathematician in the theoretical division, and she learned at some point that her calculations’ units were in kilotons and megatons). After they married and settled in Nebraska, they took family vacations back in NM, which made a deep impression on my dad as a young boy. In turn he took my family there and now my wife and I have plans to return when we are able with our own children.
We all cherish the family heirlooms my grandparents bought when they were first married (or maybe call dibs on them when we can is more accurate), and enjoy their history and beauty.

Dr Peter

What a lovely story! I have driven all over New Mexico, and especially enjoyed Santa Fe and Albuquerque. I also went to Los Alamos to see the site where the WWII work on atomic weapons was done. The landscape of the state is amazing. And the arts and crafts are priceless.

Matt

Awesome article, Simon. I hope this introduces Navajo and American Indian art and craftsmanship to some new folks. Many people don’t realize that Navajo Nation is larger than several states.

David

Although I’m not about to start dressing like a cowboy, I do like the rugs and blankets and Rodrigo’s recommendation, ‘Wild Ones’ certainly looks like a good one for UK residents – still expensive but not exorbitant.

Gus Walbolt

As a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico I’m fortunate to see how a number of brilliant, creative people decorate with Native American textiles. I especially enjoy the mix of a contemporary setting or furnishings in juxtaposition to a vintage Navajo rug. In the early 1900’s Navajo weavings became popular in Victorian homes, later in Craftsman Bungalows and then in MCM settings (such as a Nakashima table next to a Navajo rug). Glad to see the recent increase in interest in this beautiful indigenous art form.

Jeldrik

This could lead into an interesting discussion of what constitutes inspiration and what theft – something Ralph Lauren has been accused of in the past. I’ll leave that for a separate article though, if people are interested.”

I would be very interested in such an article. Cultural appropriation (by white men) is a real problem and is virtually ignored in the menswear community. Which is a shame.

Gus Walbolt

There are laws against misrepresenting Native American crafts. The Indian Arts and Crafts Act (Act) of 1990 (P.L. 101-644) is a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States. It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization, resident within the United States. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000. This is enforced. A local retailer was led away in handcuffs by the FBI for selling jewelry misrepresented as made by Native Americans when it wasn’t.

Dante

This is definitely a topic close to home for me as well — living on Vancouver Island, Canada where the Cowichan sweater/jumper was born, you see firsthand that the problem with inauthentic Indigenous art isn’t just an issue of principle or of artistic integrity, it has real financial consequences for Indigenous peoples. At one point in the pandemic, Navajo nation had one of the highest rates of infection in the United States, in part due to factors such as lack of economic support and proper public health infrastructure. Indigenous peoples in Canada including the Quw’utsun (Cowichan) people have faced similar struggles with Covid relating to intergenerational poverty, in turn stemming from over-century-old colonial policies.
Examples aside, it’s easy to see how traditional practitioners of art forms such as knitting face tangible harm from losing business to large companies like Hudson’s Bay that produce cheap fakes made overseas to low labour standards. A good indicator of whether cultural appreciation has crossed over into appropriation is when the appropriator’s benefit comes at the expense of the original artist. Not to get on a soapbox (too late I guess), but given how much menswear inadvertently stands for sustainability and human rights by focusing on things like craft and slow, small production, I feel it’s important to have these discussions. Sorry if some disagree but I suggest anyone interested in these incredible art forms to give some thought, especially when thinking about purchasing it.
To be clear: This isn’t meant a critique on your piece, Simon, I think you’ve done a superb job highlighting authentic Navajo work here. I am also interested in the Ralph Lauren/appropriation article.

Raj

Cultural appropriation is a fictitious term that has no meaning but continues to be naively propagated. What constitutes theft? Many things like hairstyles, a type of clothing, etc…are not and cannot be owned by anyone from any culture. It is not as if someone who is white infringed on a copyright, stole someone’s publishing, etc…I always ask people to explain to me what cultural appropriation is and to do it with a specific example and I never get any cogent argument because what results is a poorly thought out argument without any logic underlying it. Also, if you do believe in cultural appropriation then please stop wearing jeans and stealing from the white man who invented them among many other things! LOL. Almost all cultural appropriation arguments act as if there was something a culture owned that could have been stolen like corned rows (I.e. hair) or a kimono (I.e. a style of clothing). Unfortunately, NO ONE owns those things and even if they do, as in the case of jeans, the patents on them expired long ago as was the case with Levi Strauss. Thereby, anyone was allowed to make jeans without paying royalties to the House of Strauss. 

Ralph Lauren can use Indian art as a theme for their clothing or for anything else without apology. Again, I ask, what did Ralph Lauren steal? What patents or copyrights did he infringe on? Please explain arguments using specific examples. Meaningless and general terms like cultural appropriation are meant to obfuscate the issue and don’t explain anything. 

Raj

Hi Simon,

There are huge inconsistencies in adopting the idea of using another culture’s legal system to justify concepts of IP ownership:

– Anyone could retroactively say they own something, like an ethnic group, at any time and claim to use their “own” legal system as means of justification for their ownership claims. Unfortunately, they don’t get to choose what legal system / government they are adopting in today’s world. They are choosing to adopt the one in which they live unless they choose to leave.

– More importantly:

Why would we only retroactively use another culture’s legal system as the basis of propping up a belief of the ownership of a style of dress or other so-called intellectual property but we will conveniently forego the more torrid aspects of adopting it as a whole? Many Native American tribes owned slaves and that was perfectly normal to them. Should that part of their legal code also have been adopted? Many Native American tribes would kill captors when warring. Should that part of their legal code have been adopted? Many Native American tribes constantly warred with other tribes and had no qualms in pillaging and looting other Native American lands like the Commanche did with the Apache. If it accords with one tribes legal system then should we accept that practice as well? Conveniently using one aspect of another culture’s legal system, as the basis for granting them ownership of a piece of intellectual property like a style of clothing, while ignoring every other part of that legal system is logically untenable. You can’t pick and choose what concepts to approve to serve as a basis for an argument that only seeks to confirm your own biases.

– Also you talked in generalities and not in specifics. I always ask individuals to use a specific case to highlight their “cultural appropriation” arguments. They are much easier to discuss but in my experience always lead toward the exposure of the underlying logical flaws underpinning them.

A corporation that copies a style of jewelry isn’t practicing anything but good business sense. No one owns many of the things people claim individuals are appropriating and if someone has the ability to use it as inspiration or to copy it in hopes of profiting then there is nothing wrong with it.

The only thing I have seen that cultural appropriation arguments are trying to do is to make separate arguments to give more proper credit/money towards the originators of a certain fashion style/practice/etc.. However, originators are not necessarily owners or even can be owners especially of things like a “style of clothing” or a “hairstyle” among many other things. That is an entirely separate argument and has nothing to do with what all these arguments tend to initially argue for.

I look forward to your article and/or specific case.

I stand by my earlier statement in asserting that all cultural appropriation arguments are meaningless. If you want to talk about crediting an originator (i.e. in non-monetary terms) then we can talk but the idea of something being stolen that was never owned in the first place or can’t be stolen does not hold court in any legal system nor does it hold sway in the realm of common sense.

Great blog as always and I never comment but I wanted to get these points out since cultural appropriation is never discussed with any depth in any journalistic outlet.

MB

I’d love to see the follow-up piece. I often wonder of the extent to which differences are driven by terminology as much as anything else (i.e. I might describe a range of things as cultural appropriation and Raj might describe those he is fine with as “homage” and those he is not as “theft/copyright infringement”, so without specific examples we might appear to disagree but it is really just that we are not using the same terms to describe our thoughts).
There is an interesting discussion here around intellectual property protection but I think this is potentially misconceived for two reasons.

  1. First, this strikes me as an ethical question and the law is not (in any jurisdiction) determinative of ethics.
  2. Secondly, my understanding is that copyright applies to designs but not to the components/structures of the designs. Influence and homage are not breaches of IP law. In addition, IP must be owned by somebody and a cultural or nation does not typically have legal personality in this regard.

There is a separate discussion about companies breaching IP and small companies being unable to defend their IP because of the legal costs (which seems to be alluded to above), but my understanding is that this typically applies to patents not copyright, and I presume we are discussing style/design in this context?

MB

As noted above, I think in some ways the IP point is a distraction since looking at an ethical/moral question will not (indeed cannot) be solved by legal analysis (although clearly, it would be logical for ethical considerations to drive legal development).
I don’t believe it is correct that copyright can apply to any part of an intellectual product in the UK. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 limits the application of copyright to very specific categories of work (see section 1(1) of the act).
Equally, my understanding is that designs are not protected under the Act if they are commonplace in a qualifying country at the time of creation and I thought that much of the debate in respect of cultural appropriation was in respect of items that are generically “of a culture” rather than specifically “of a designer”, which leads back to my other point that IP law will never be helpful in this circumstance as cultures do not typically have legal personality to own any such design. The qualifying country requirement is a distraction in its own right but not one I have considered.
None of the above should be read as suggesting that there is no such thing as cultural appropriation, merely that it is is best debated from a purely ethical perspective.
Apologies from distracting from the wider, and more important, discussion on the merits of the Navajo weaving. I think the weaving is beautiful but, like many other beautiful things, I am not sure that it would work with anything else in my life. I’m very impressed by the skill involved and appreciate it more for knowing a bit of the history and context behind it. Many thanks.