Rugs of the People
Weavers get behind-the-scenes glimpse at museum's collection
By Shondiin Silversmith
WINDOW ROCK, Nov. 27, 2013
(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)
Weaving is one of the Navajo people's oldest art forms, and like any other art from, the style changes through time.
So as a way to show people how much weaving has changed as well as spark their interest in the art form, the Navajo Nation Museum hosted a Textile Tour/Discussion on Nov. 19 where the participants got to go through the NNM collection.
Clarenda Begay, Navajo Nation museum curator, said the discussion was hosted as a way to get people interested in weaving, and what better way to do that then showing them the textile collection of the Navajo Nation Museum?
"Weaving calms you down and it makes you look at your life. It's your life that you're weaving into these pieces," Begay said, adding that it is known that when weavers weave they're in a trance and that is why they weave "a spirit line" in their rugs so they can escape.
Begay said she believes what makes the museum's collection of rugs really unique is that it expands from our earliest period of rugs to the most modern. The oldest rug at the museum dates from 1860.
"These collections belong to the Navajo Nation, therefore they're for the Navajo people," Begay said.
Joining the discussion was master weaver and Navajo Technical University Weaving Instructor Roy Kady from Goat Spring, Ariz. alongside a few of his students and community members.
"We wanted to immerse ourselves in some of the older collections to see some of the designs, colors, and we even went through some of the weft counts," Kady said.
Kady said after looking through the collection of rugs at the NNM he sees that in comparison to modern weaving "there is a basic type of design element, but they were more personal to the weavers who wove them in that era, pre-Long Walk."
"We're mainly weavers in terms of weaving these pieces to hang on the wall, but in the past they were wearable," Kady added.
A few of the designs that Begay showed the participants were on display in the NNM exhibits but they also got to see many that are not currently displayed.
Begay had each of the participants wear gloves before they handled the textiles she brought out from the NNM collections. This was to protect the pieces from the oils on people's skin.
A rug shown that sparked the conversation of the difference between weaving with cotton and wool was a rug featuring handspun wool and also four-ply cotton with natural and aniline dyes circa 1880.
"Cotton has a little less life duration then wool," Kady said before explaining that if one were to use cotton string on their loom and weave their wefts in wool, the wool would outlast the cotton string.
"The cotton string would deteriorate, your wool would fall apart and all you would have left is the weft," Kady explained.
A piece of which Kady and many of the participants were particularly fond was a finely woven waterproof blanket known as the "Chief Mariano Blanket."
Begay said the blanket was documented as having been the property of Chief Mariano, a war sub-chief just after the Navajo reform, and it is circa 1865-1868.
"Out of all the pieces of in the Navajo Nation Museum this one is one of our prize pieces," Begay said of the blanket before allowing the participants to observe the work.
"The finer it gets, the more compact the strings are, to where it could also be waterproof and it's also wearable so it's fluid on you," Kady explained, adding that there are still a few weavers on the Navajo Nation, maybe a handful, whowork with this finer weft count.
Kady said there were at least 60 to 80 wefts per an inch within the blanket, and with the fineness of the wool he believes that it may have taken the weaver of the Chief Mariano blanket at least 12 hours to complete one inch.
Weft count is similar to the thread count people use when determining the fineness of their linen, Kady added.
"It's so perfect it's hard to tell," said Dibé Be Iina Executive Director TahNibaa Naataanii, looking for the parts of the blanket that were repaired.
Naataani said during the tour after observing the different weaving styles and colors used that it's very interesting to know our grandparents were scientists because they had to know how to reduce the PH levels with each plant in order to make that color.
Naataani was not only a part of the discussion as a participant but she was there for her organization to demonstrate drum carding, spinning and weaving, adding that Dibé Be Iina sells carded wool for a decent price and offers to rent out drum carders.
NTU student Rochelle Barton-Silver from Indian Wells, Ariz. was a part of the tour, and she said that she was "really amazed with all the history that is here for the Navajo people. There are a lot of different types of styles that I was not aware of, and different techniques that weavers had.
Silver said she was fascinated with the Chief Mariano blanket as well. She really tried to relate to the weaver because she is in the process of learning how to weave.
"It's a lot of work," Barton-Silver said adding that after seeing all the rugs she is really amazed at our ancestors' productivity. "Nowadays we're so different, and I guess I'm trying to embrace that legacy and that livelihood."
Museum staff also showed the 12 participants in the textile tour/discussion more than 10 rugs, both from their collection on display and private.
"It's an honor because you almost sense the history, you almost sense the life that was endured at the time they were woven and to just appreciate the subtleness, the beauty," Kady said.
"They're very basic, very minimal in design change and color, yet they are still very beautiful," Kady added.