Designer taught herself to weave, sew

By Shondiin Silversmith
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, August 8, 2013

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(Times photo – Shondiin Silversmith)

TOP: Irene Begay (middle) poses with the group of models that showed off her contemporary and traditional designs.

SECOND FROM TOP: A model shows off one of Irene Begay's popular modern designs, a princess cut two-tear purple plush velvet dress. "It's a simple sewing technique," Begay said of this dress, which comes is other colors.

A skill mastered by simple observation has helped fashion designer Irene Begay develop her passion into a business that showcases her unique traditional and modern clothing designs.

Since 2007 Traditional Authentic Native Designs is the business Begay, 55, sells her clothes under and on July 27 she showed off her weaving and sewing skills at the 12th annual Indian Market and Festival at Berg Park in Farmington.

Begay said she never really sold her designs until her late son Heremy Bixon started taking them to different flea markets across the Navajo Nation in 2000.

"I used to just make them, but he'd take them and sell them. That's how this all started," she said. "I have the passion for it."

Begay is originally from Standing Rock, N.M. She is Red Running Into the Water Clan and born for Red Cheek People.

During the fashion show at Berg Park, each model presented two outfits from Begay as they walked the runway with their hair tied in traditional buns, turquoise jewelry across their necks, moccasins on their feet and feathers in one hand.

"She's a good artist and good designer," said Rosemary Reano, who has been a model for Begay for the past year. "She has pride in her work and I take pride in the dresses when I model them.

Reano modeled two modern dresses from Begay during the festival - a black tank top complimented with a beige Pendleton skirt, and a red Pendleton tank top with a red skirt.

"She puts a lot of good intentions in her work and it really shows up in the designs and the colors," Reano added.

If a model models for Begay at least three times, she gets to keep the dresses she wore.

"One thing I want is a girl with long hair because I want it in a bun," Begay said adding that she always thinks of her mom when her dresses are being modeled. "She never had her hair down, she was a traditional woman."

Begay's late mother Nancy Long Johnson is who inspired her to start weaving when she was 8 years old, but it was a skill her mother never actually taught her.

In fact, Begay said she would often sneak up to her mother's loom when she stepped away and start weaving her rug inch by inch.

"She never actually really taught me, saying, 'This is how you do it.' I didn't learn like that. She used to chase me away," Begay said recalling how she used to observe her mother create rug designs.

One day she didn't even notice I wove about an inch of her rug, Begay said.

Begay's tendency to observe her mother's work didn't stop at weaving - she took it a step further when she caught sight of her mother's old sewing machine.

Begay said her mother owned an old sewing machine that required pedaling with the feet and she remembers actually standing on it to make it function properly as she pushed different pieces of fabric through.

The first designs she recalls creating were on the bottom of her friend's bellbottoms where she would cut out the bottom and sew in native designs.

"Ever since then I've been weaving, sewing and crocheting," Begay said. Now that she owns an industrial sewing machine it allows her to create quality dresses with a nice thickness in a timely manner.

Even with a big sewing machine Begay said she will works hard every day with a routine of waking up at 4 a.m. each day only to head straight into her shop. "I have people calling me every day for orders," she said.

Within a week, she said, she completes at least five dresses so she can stay on top of her orders. I

"I learned dressmaking is a year-around thing," Begay added because she creates dresses for graduations, pageants, modeling, weddings, ceremonials, etc.

"I think of myself as a master rug weaver now," said Begay because she is able to weave different styles of rug dresses that feature traditional designs.

"I know that I am the first Navajo woman to be doing five different rug dress designs," Begay said. The designs she creates are the full, halter, off the shoulder, diamond and strapless.

"I used to weave 12 rug dresses a year," Begay said but since she broke her arm she cut it back to six, and each customer has to reserve one. For her other dresses she'll complete at least 15 dresses a month.

Every design that Begay creates she tries to make unique to the person that is buying it. None of her designs are the same.

Her customers are able to pick out what type of dress they want, but Begay likes to be able to add something different each time.

"It's just a lot of modern styles with a traditional standpoint," Begay said. When she starts to develop a dress she visualizes the designs in her head, starting with a traditional outline first.

"All the dresses I make is for that person, that body," Begay emphasized, explaining that when a customer places an order she'll send her a measuring chart allowing her to create the dress for that specific person.

"The furthest order I got was from India," she said.

It takes three to five weeks for Begay to complete a dress order and three to five months for a rug dress order. Her dresses can cost anywhere from $30 to $875, the rug dresses being the most expensive.

Begay's fashion show was a hit with the crowd, especially for Sadie Fleming of Cortez, Colo. She said with pride, "I already got one outfit from them," as she held up a black velvet vest.

Fleming said she bought the vest from Begay because she thought the designs were unique in the way Begay is able to combine her traditional and modern styles.

Information: visit Traditional Authentic Native Designs by Irene Begay on Facebook or email