Volume 6, Number 1, Jan. 1984, pp.3-5

Conservation of Navajo Textiles

by Bob Morgan and Jeanne Brako

This paper summarizes Part I of the talk "Some Considerations for the Conservation of Navajo Textiles", presented at the 1983 WAAC annual meeting.

Discussions of Navajo weavings have usually centered on design, design interpretation, chronology and regional styles. Materials have been considered primarily in their connection to the lifestyle of the people, rather than for their effect on the finished product. When considering the preservation of Navajo textiles, it is specifically the materials and their processing that must be examined. We will discuss Navajo textiles from this perspective, including 1) the effect of the physical environment on the Navajo reservation, 2) the structure and construction of the textiles, 3) the actual materials (i.e. the wools, yarns and dyes) and 4) the historical context of these features.

The Navajos inhabit a vast arid region of the American Southwest, on a reservation including parts of the 4-corner region of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The lack of water prevented the Navajo weavers from 1) adequately scouring the wool to remove dirt and excess grease, 2) rinsing the dyed wool to remove unbound dyes, and 3) confronting the problem of future washing of the finished textile. These are underlying problems associated with the present condition of Navajo textiles.

Navajo textiles are woven on a vertical loom. The warp is continuous, with the proportions of the final weaving determined during the initial warping process. The vast majority of Navajo textiles are weft-faced, tapestry weave. When handspun, both warp and weft are Z-spun.

Selvages and edging cords are integral in the finished piece. The end edging cords are applied following the initial warping process. The edging cord physically separates the warp turns and protects the exposed warp ends. Side selvage cords are incorporated into the textile during the weaving process. The selvage cords add strength to the sides and protect the side weft loops. Selvage treatment is important in determining the ethnicity of the early Southwestern weavings. Historically, the Navajo selvages utilize two 3-ply (Z-spun, S-plied) cords, while many Pueblo (Hopi and Zuni) weavings utilize three 2-ply cords. The position of the finished selvage ends can also aid in interpreting the weaving and finished order in which the piece was woven. This is especially evident in blankets woven as wearing garments.

Weft joinings at design elements vary and aid in the general dating of Navajo weavings. Prior to 1860, interlocking weft joints predominated in stepped terrace designs; from 1860 to 1900, interlocking warp joints predominated (diagonal-serrate designs); and after 1900, both types were utilized equally.

The primary fiber used in historic Navajo weavings is wool. Sheep were first introduced into the American Southwest by Coronado in 1540. Many of the original 5,000 brought by Coronado were left with the first colonists. In 1598 sheep were again introduced to the area by Onate. These sheep were low-land Churro. Spanish peasants raised this breed (export of the prized Merino sheep was prevented by royal decree.) The Churro were scrawny, rugged, long-legged sheep with straight, long wool which needed little preparation for weaving. The Navajo developed sizable herds of the Churro breed and used their well-suited long-staple wool for weavings. Table 1 lists the characteristics of the Churro breed.

Churro sheep remained the primary wool source for the Navajo until 1863. The U. S. Government in 1863 with the aid of Kit Carson, forced the Navajo into submission, relocating their population to Bosque Redondo (near Fort Sumner, NM) and destroying the vast herds of Churro sheep (Table 2). When the Navajo returned to their reservation land in 1868, few sheep were available. In 1870 the U. S. Government supplied them with native Mexican sheep (a cross between native Churro and Kentucky Merino brought to the Southwest over the Santa Fe Trail.) Other attempts were made by the Government over the years to bolster the Navajo's mutton production, but each attempt resulted in further contamination of the herds. Subsequent introduction of other "improved breeds" resulted: Merino (1883), Rambouillet (1903), Shropshire and Hampshire (1910), Suffolk (1921), and Lincoln (1933). Navajo wools as a result became more crimpy, short stapled, greasier and more difficult to handspin into a weaving weft. Familiarity with the characteristics of the wool of these "improved breeds" assists in dating Navajo textiles.

Before 1868, the Navajos used natural fleece colored yarns supplemented with a limited number of dyed yarns: indigo blue, yellow from numerous plant sources, green from over-dyeing of indigo with vegetal yellow, and raveled materials. Raveled materials were trade cloths, either Baize or Bayetta, dyed in cochineal or lac, which had been unraveled and then rewoven in parallel bundles of threads into Navajo blankets.

Prior to 1865, Saxony yarns (3-ply, plant and animal dyed) had been used sparingly. When the Navajos returned to their reservation in 1868, they found their Churro flocks destroyed and a lack of adequate wool for weaving. The U.S. agents at the trading posts began supplying them with commercial yarns. Concurrent with the introduction of new wool types was the expansion of the Navajo palette. It has been estimated that over 72,000 pounds of Germantown yarns, milled in Germantown, PA, were supplied to the Navajos after 1868. The vivid aniline-dyed Germantown yarns were at first 3-ply (1864-1875) and later 4-ply (1875 until 1900). Textiles woven during this "eye-dazzler" period are characterized by the use of serrate designs (interlocking-warp joints) and an expanded aniline palette. Commercial wool weft and commercial cotton twine warp and a discontinuous warp with knotted warps at the finishing end were all typical.

The impact of aniline dyes was not restricted to their appearance in commercially spun and dyed yarns. After 1870 the trading posts began to supply prepackaged aniline dyes. With pressure from the white traders, the Navajo weavers began aniline dyeing their handspun wools. This practice continues today for many parts of the Navajo reservation.

In 1930 the Navajo tribe, the U.S. Government and the Anglo traders initiated the "Chinle Vegetal Revival" project to expand the use of vegetal dyes among the Navajos. The term "revival" should be considered a misnomer because vegetal dyes were never popular or extensively used by the Navajos. An extensive palette of native vegetal dyes emerged after they were popularized by the traders. Unfortunately many of these dyes show a lower light fastness than the already fugitive anilines.

During the 1930s the weaving industry deteriorated greatly because suitable wools were not available. By 1935 the U.S.D.A. established the "Wingate Project" to try to breed back sheep with wool suitable for hand-spinning and Navajo weaving. This project did improve the wool but the Churro breed was never reintroduced. In 1966 the U. S. Government decided to terminate the Wingate Project and reduce the Navajo herds for erosion control. The reduction of sheep did not discriminate among the breeds.

The Navajo weaving tradition has changed dramatically according to the materials available. Each phase reflects in the present condition of these textiles. Germantowns typically show garish palettes, color shifts, and broken warps due to the use of cotton twine. Indigo blues have often eroded in the early wearing blankets. Older aniline blacks tend to deteriorate faster than other aniline colors. Even today numerous projects continue to supply new dyes and various types of commercially processed wools and yarns. Changes are visible in the condition of these contemporary Navajo textiles only months after manufacture.

Bob Morgan, Southwest Textile Restoration
Jeanne Brako, Rocky Mountain Regional Conservation Center

Table 1
Characteristics Of Churro Breed ("Old-Type" Navajo)

BODY TYPE:          Long Legged
                    Narrow Bodied
                    Light Boned
                    4-Horned Rams Common

BEHAVIOR:           Prolificacy at 125%
                    Low Lamb Death
                    Increased Maternal Instinct
                    Increased Milk Production
                    Increased Hardiness of Lambs

FLEECE:             Low Grease
                    Open Fleece with Light-Shrinking
                    Long Staple
                    Innercoat of Fine Wool Fibers
                         (non-medullated, 81% fleece,
                         10-40 micron D, 9.0-19.0 cm)
                    Protective Coat of Long, Coarse,
                         Hairlike Fibers (medullated,
                         17% fleece, 40-50 micron diameter
                         11.5-29.0 cm)
                    Varying Amounts of Short, Coarse,
                         Opaque Kemp (medullated, 2% fleece,
                         50-60 micron D, 10.0-23.0 cm)

Table 2
Historical Events Associated with Navajo Weaving Materials

                    1540 --- Churro Breed Introduced
(Saxony Yarn)       1821 --- Santa Fe Trail Opened
1800-1865                 |
(Germantown Yarn)   1863 --- Bosque Redondo Encampment
1864-1875                 |
1875-1900           1868 --- Return to Reservation
                    1870 --- Introduction of Native Mexican
                          |  Sheep (introduction of aniline dye)
                    1883 --- Reintroduction of Merino
                          |  (U.S. Agents)
                    1903 --- Rambouillet Breed
                    1910 --- Shropshire & Hampshire Breeds
                    1921 --- Suffolk Breed
                    1930 --- (Chinle Vegetal Dye Revival)
                    1933 --- Lincoln Breed
                    1935 --- Wingate Project by U.S.D.A.
                    1966 --- "Termination" of Wingate Project

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