The Fascinating History of Navajo Rugs: Exploring the different periods of Navajo Weavings

Photo ©Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection 1904

 

From the inception of Navajo weaving around 1700, weaving has provided an important economic benefit to the Navajo tribe and a fine outlet for their artistic talents. Today, Navajo rugs are made in the weaver's home or hogan on vertical looms using the same methods they have mastered for over three hundred years. Without pencil and paper or outlines, Navajo weavers' minds unfold complex designs in their wool rugs. Since 1976, Garland's has worked closely with top Navajo weavers and collected valuable antique weavings. While we are now receiving less quantity of weaving than in the past, the quality is the finest it has ever been. Read on to learn about the fascinating historical evolution of this beautiful, time-intensive artwork.

 

Classic Period (1700 - 1865)

The classic period includes early Navajo blankets that used natural dyes such as cochineal from dried insects (red) and indigo blue. Classic First-Phase chief blankets are extremely rare today, and very few of these weavings are in good condition. These coveted blankets can sell for well over $1 million. 

 

Late Classic Period (1865 - 1885)

 

The weaving above is a beautiful example of a Late Classic Third-Phase Chief Blanket. This blanket dates to 1875 and features Piano Key designs in natural homespun white and black (dark brown) wool. Dyes used include indigo blue and three sources of red bayeta. 

Late Classic period includes Second-Phase chief blankets and Third-Phase chief blankets and serapes. Serapes are wearable blankets. They differ from chief blankets in that they are meant to be worn vertically instead of horizontally as chief blankets are worn. This period also features the very beginning of the use of aniline (chemical) dyes.

The weaving below is a 1875 - 1880 Moki Serape. The Moki aspect of this serape is the blue (indigo dye) and black stripes. The "Moki" style was introduced by the Spanish and adopted by the Navajos. Indigo dye is rare and it never fades, which is why the blue is still so vibrant and striking. The red in this serape is called Raveled Flannel. At this time, the weaver did not have access to bright aniline dyes to get this red color. However, she was able to purchase bolts of red cloth that were coming over on boats from Europe and then on the Santa Fe railroad to the Southwest. She unraveled the cloth and then re-spun it into a red yarn that she incorporated into her weaving. Such rare pieces are fascinating windows into time!

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Transitional Period (1880 - 1900)

During this period, Navajo blankets continue to be woven, including serape designs and chief blankets. In the 1880s, the trains made their way out to the West with trade goods, including machine woven blankets. These blankets were warm and much cheaper than the hand woven Navajo blankets. Even the Navajos started wearing these blankets, and the demand for the hand-woven Navajo blankets decreased. However, early traders began to bring tourists out who purchased these blankets to use as floor, bed, and wall coverings. This changed the intention of weaving from blankets to bed coverings, floor rugs, and wall hangings. Transitional weavings are still very soft as the weavers were still used to weaving blankets.

Above is a great 1890s transitional weaving, ideally hung as a wall piece. It features all the bright aniline dyes, and there is no defined border yet, as this is before the rug period. These transitional weavings from the 1890s are very collectible. Their designs are a continuation of the blanket designs woven in the same soft, long staple churro wool that was introduced by the Spanish. Also, this was the advent of the beautiful bright aniline dyes, so the weavers made rugs full of bright, beautiful colors that are unique to this period.

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Germantown Weavings

Because this period involved aniline (chemical) dyes brought over on the railroads, there was an explosion in new colorful designs using these aniline dyes. This was also the period (around 1875) that brightly colored machine-woven Germantown yarn was first brought over from Pennsylvania to the Southwest on the Santa Fe railroad. This period only lasted from 1875-1900, and the rugs from this time are very collectible. The rug above is a fantastic example of a Germantown rug in great condition. Read more about Germantowns here

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Rug Period (1900 - 1930)

This is the period where non-native traders and trading post owners began to encourage weavers to make actual floor rugs with defined outer borders. They knew there was a demand for floor pieces, especially from tourists from the midwest and east coast. This caused a distinct shift from the designs of wearable blankets that the Navajos had always woven in the past and the new true floor rug weavings that emerged. Sometimes the Navajos would leave a line (called a spirit line) that breaks through the border. The rug above is a 1920s J.B. Moore Crystal with rich colors and crisp designs.

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Regional Style Period (1930 - Today)

At this point, the different regional areas on the Navajo reservation began to develop distinct styles. For example, Lorenzo Hubble at the Ganado trading post loved red backgrounds in rugs. The weavers in that area knew they had the best chance of selling their rug if they wove a red background into their weaving. Over time, this style began to be known as "Ganado Red". It's a weaving with a central diamond design and a red background, as seen in the gorgeous rug above by Betty Ann Nez. Similarly, other trading post owners had various preferences that directed the style of that regional area. The trading post owner near Two Grey Hills preferred rugs with all natural wool colors and no chemical dyes. The trader near Teec Nos Pos liked Persian weavings and introduced photos of Persian rugs to the weavers in that area. To this day, Teec Nos Pos weavings have strong design themes similar to Middle Eastern rug designs. 

Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most of these weavers traveled by horse or wagon, so they would only be able to sell rugs to the nearest trading post. This meant they adopted the style from the nearby trading post and passed on the style to the next generations. Because of this, even to this day, when a weaver is from the Two Grey Hills area, she will most likely specialize in Two Grey Hills style weavings.

  

Two Grey Hills by Margie Elwood; Bird Pictorial by Angela YazzieStorm Pattern by Rebecca Tso

 

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Sizing

Although the best way to test the size and fit of a piece of jewelry is to try it on in the store, we know that is not always an option. In an effort to help you choose the piece that is right for you, we have included measurements of each piece on the website. Here is how our measurements are defined:

Bracelets

Finding the right size bracelet for your wrist has always been a tricky endeavor, since, unlike rings, there isn't a standardized, universal sizing chart for wrist size. One reason for this is that we all have different shaped wrists, some of us have round wrists, while others have more oval. Bracelets, like wrists, also have different shapes.

So, while bracelet sizing will never be an exact science, we've done what we can to ensure the greatest chance of a comfortable fit. The best thing you can do if you don't know your wrist size is to take a soft measuring tape and loosely measure the circumference of your wrist at the point you plan on wearing it. Try not to have the measuring tape dig into your skin, as this will result in a smaller than ideal size. Once you have the circumference of your wrist, compare it to the chart below to find the correct bracelet size. If your wrist measures in-between two sizes, we recommend rounding up to the larger size. (ie: if your wrist measures 6.375"- you should shop for size "Medium" bracelets.)

 Wrist Circumference

Corresponding Bracelet Size

5.5"

XX-Small

5.75"

Extra-Small

6"

Small

6.25"

Small-Medium

6.5"

Medium

6.75" - 7"

Medium-Large

7.25"

Large

7.5"

Extra-Large

7.75"

XX-Large

8"

XXX-Large

 

You may want to drill down further on the bracelet sizing to make sure the cuff is a comfortable fit. You will notice on our website that we generally list four measurements for bracelets:

Keep in mind that certain bracelets can be adjusted slightly to fit your wrist, but those with inlay or stones all the way around will be damaged if bent. In any case, it is always best to check with with us to see if a particular bracelet is adjustable.

Lastly, have no fear! If you order a bracelet that doesn't fit, send it back for one that does! We want this to be a positive experience, you should never wear something that isn't 100% comfortable. More on our return policy here.

Buckles

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Concha Belts

We try to include the height and width for the conchas, as well as the buckle (if different), and the width of the belt they are on. The length of the concha belts can be less important, because these belts are often made quite long to accommodate many waist sizes, and then can be shortened to fit the wearer. If you are concerned whether or not a belt will fit you, just ask. We are happy to size most of our concha belts before shipping.