The old-fashioned way

Weavers turn wool into art, celebrate age-old methods

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

TOADLENA, N.M., Sept. 30, 2010

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(Special to the Times - Rick Hoskie)

TOP PHOTO: Emma Benally, right, and her daughter Donna, both of Newcomb, N.M., card wool during the 13th annual Toadlena Carding and Spinning Day on Sept. 25.

BOTTOM PHOTO: Francis Manuelito, right, of Newcomb, N.M., instructs Joya Banaka, a teacher at Nizhoni Elementary in Shiprock, on how to spin wool. Jessie Deal, of Shiprock, looks on. (Special to the Times - Rick Hoskie)

The wool carders in Annie Mae Begay's hands sounded like sandpaper as she pulled them back and forth across each other, straightening tangled clumps of wool into smooth, soft rolls called "rovings" ready for spinning.

Across the table Baldwin Chee, Begay's companion, watched and listened to the rhythm of the carders.

Begay, 69, of Toadlena, is a weaver of the Two Grey Hills style of Navajo rugs.

Two Grey Hills rugs are known for their use of all-natural colors - black, brown, grey, tan and white - which some weavers blend together in spinning to expand the tonal range.

Another distinction of the style is that the weavers carefully card and spin their wool into very fine yarn, resulting in a high thread count.

Begay was one of the local weavers who participated in the 13th Annual Carding and Spinning Day held Sept. 25 at the Toadlena Trading Post.

Like many of the women at the event, Begay learned weaving from her mother when she was very young - 6 years old, in her case.

It seemed natural to learn "the whole works" of making a rug since her family owned sheep, she said.

One lesson that she learned was how to remove the wool from the carder.

"It has to look like a cat's tail," she said, showing a roving the size of a cigar.

Mark Winter instituted the annual weaving showcase after purchasing the trading post in 1997.

"The idea is to honor what it is that these grandmothers do, that makes them special," Winter said.

The trend today is to make rugs from store-brought wool, but the weavers of the Two Grey Hills area continue to hand-card and spin their wool, he explained.

Doing this increases the time it takes to create a rug by 50 percent, and "for the ladies to keep doing that, it has to be recognized and appreciated and rewarded," Winter said.

In addition to recognition, the event offers the local weavers the chance to socialize.

Begay remembers other such events. During those gatherings, the weavers traded wool to broaden their color choices and spent the day carding, spinning and visiting.

"We ate like a big family at the end, then went home," she said.

As Begay continued to card, she explained that the key to being a successful weaver is practice and an appetite for work.

"That's how you learn and if you're lazy, forget it," she said.

Mary H. Yazzie shares a similar work ethic. Yazzie, 72, of Sanostee, N.M., is a master weaver and spends majority of her day working on rugs and tapestries that depict Ye'iis, Ye'ii-Bi-Chei dancers, and Mother Earth and Father Sky.

She can also weave round rugs but declined to talk about that.

"She doesn't want to give her secret away," said her daughter Marilyn. "When mom works on a round rug, she works alone."
Marilyn is one of five family members who weave. Each one was either taught or influenced by Mary.

Being a master weaver has given Mary the opportunity to demonstrate her skills in places like Aspen, Colo., Denver, Santa Fe and Scottsdale, Ariz. She has even demonstrated at the Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise in Window Rock.

Mary learned to weave at 7 from her sister, Helen Harvey.

"She's been weaving all her life," Marilyn said as she watched her mother spin some brown wool.

Another mother and daughter team at the event was Emma and Donna Benally of Newcomb, N.M. They were busy carding and spinning, their table covered with black and brown wool.

As a child, Donna would watch her mother weave. She was in her teens when she made a first attempt at weaving.

"Before that I just worked on my mom's rug," she said.

Both Emma, 72, and Donna, 47, agreed that it is not easy work.

Each of Donna's five sisters learned how to weave but now it is only she and her sister, Sally, who continue the art.

"I try to encourage my nieces to weave but mostly they're into sports at school," Donna said.

From shearing to spinning, "the process does take quite a while," Donna said.

This long process could be a reason why no one in the family shows an interest in learning it, she said.

Despite that lack of interest, Donna tries to promote weaving in the community and in the local schools. As with any art, the next generation of talent can pop up anywhere.

"It is interesting to see the younger ones bring their rugs in or say they know how to weave," she said.

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