Navaho Weaving: Its Technic and History [NOOK Book]


First in-depth study of the technical aspects of Navaho weaving, plus history of the loom and its prototypes in the prehistoric Southwest, analysis and description of weaves, dyes, and more. Over 230 illustrations, including more than 100 excellent photographs of authentically dated blankets. Indispensable resource for collectors, weavers, ethnologists, more. Foreword by F. W. Hodge. Bibliography.
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Navaho Weaving: Its Technic and History

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First in-depth study of the technical aspects of Navaho weaving, plus history of the loom and its prototypes in the prehistoric Southwest, analysis and description of weaves, dyes, and more. Over 230 illustrations, including more than 100 excellent photographs of authentically dated blankets. Indispensable resource for collectors, weavers, ethnologists, more. Foreword by F. W. Hodge. Bibliography.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780486144801
  • Publisher: Dover Publications
  • Publication date: 12/20/2012
  • Series: Native American
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • File size: 36 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1991 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14480-1



WEAVING is a process of interlacing objects long, slender, and flexible (most commonly vegetal or animal fibers), to make a single fabric. It is a process begun by the birds in their nest building and continued by primitive man in his rude clothing and basketry. It was adapted to the simple hand loom by peoples of rudimentary civilization, and finally in our modern era, to the power loom. Weaving spans human history from beginning to end.

This book is concerned solely with weaving as done by the Navaho; but Navaho weaving is not a phenomenon of spontaneous outburst, it is a link in a long chain. Other, simpler links had to precede its forging, and in two brief chapters these will be described. Thus we shall arrive at Navaho weaving by following up its historic (and prehistoric) chain from below, instead of bursting suddenly upon it from above. This method of approach will demonstrate that the Navaho loom is not so much a crude device for the manufacture of coarse woolens (as it would appear if we neglected the historic background), as a triumphant culmination of long labor and experiment. Man, we are taught, came "up from the apes"; the loom came up from the human fingers—or even up from the birds, if we accept the theory that the bird's nest directly inspired man's first efforts at weaving. In either case the loom has an interesting and instructive history: a worth-while history, for we should all be running around in stuffy furs or scratchy bark kilts had it not been devised. It may well be called the most useful machine in the world.

Strips of bark or woody branch, twists of shredded fiber, threads of spun wool—all may be interlaced in various ways, depending on the skill of the operator and the character of the material. Certain fundamental methods have developed, methods known the world around and in common use today among all peoples. They are the foundation upon which rests the whole complex structure of the textile crafts, the modern no less than the ancient.


The simple criss-cross or overlap of strands of any material having the slight flexibility needed to accommodate them to this over-and-under ordering, is known as plaiting. It has an important subdivision, which is braiding.


Schoolgirls who divide their hair into three ropes at the back of the head and braid into one—if any still do—are practising the simplest form of weaving. Braiding it is called, and for the following reasons it may be considered a branch of the general technic of plaiting. In all plaiting the strands of material are interwoven by overlapping; but in braiding these strips all start from a common point and tend in one direction (pl. 7a) while other forms of plaiting employ two sets of strips, tending in opposite directions, as shown in pl. 2b. An exception to this statement must be noted, and it proves the close kinship of the two technics : in braiding, certain strands may be bent sharply inward until they cross the others at approximately right angles, when braiding becomes plaiting in every sense of the term. A fine illustration of this merging of the two methods is given in Kidder and Guernsey (pl. 45, 1 ) .

Three is the smallest number of strips with which braiding can be done, but there is literally no greatest number. Hundreds of strings are manipulated in this number. Hundreds of strings are manipulated in this technic by some of the central and eastern tribes of the United States. The Algonkian peoples in general, the Sauk and Fox in particular, were adept at making serviceable and attractive bags and sashes of buffalo hair and apocynum (Indian hemp) by this method.

In the Southwest, braiding was known to the earliest people of whom we have gained sufficient knowledge to venture upon giving them a name—the Basketmakers. It therefore has nearly two thousand years of antiquity in this instance, for these people quite probably were flourishing and making the attractive braided sashes shown in plate 3 shortly after the time of Christ.

Coming down the centuries in the Southwest, we find the prehistoric Pueblos using braiding for sashes like those of the Basketmakers, as well as for tump-lines or carrying straps, and serviceable ropes; while in the cotton sash of their cultural heirs the Hopi (pl. 2c ) we have the technic down to date. The Navaho are not known as braiders; yet this finger weave is so simple and widespread that they may well have practised it from an early time, for during the historic period they have braided ropes of horsehair and of leather, after the Mexican fashion.

Braiding is called the simplest of weaving methods because it needs no accessories but skilful fingers (most versatile of devices after all), and because it produces a fabric without the foundation required by the more complex methods. In our own times it is exemplified in the rag rugs which are getting old-fashioned enough to be popular again, and in various ornamental cords and ropes in use everywhere; but it was always a technic of limited value.

Plaiting in its more generalized meaning is a simple technic, yet its product is very near to that of the loom. Loom weaving, in effect, is plaiting done mechanically and in bulk instead of a stitch at a time. Its fabric is bonded in the same manner as the plaited fabric, by the overlap of the component strips (pl. 22a ).

Modern furniture of wicker and cane is usually plaited; so too are many of our baskets—in particular the wire baskets used in offices, the willow clothes hampers in our homes, and the self-serve baskets in grocery stores. Oddly enough, the Hopi for centuries have made a counterpart of the latter two: a carrying basket of willow withes and a circular bowl-basket, called a ring basket, of yucca leaves plaited flat (pl. 2a). The latter goes back to a remote prehistoric time without the slightest change in its structure or function, as many archeological finds have proved. Matting too was plaited by ancient peoples of the Southwest and by many others, using cedar bark, corn husks, yucca leaves, rushes—in fact, any material flat and flexible, which are plaiting requirements.


The term looping covers a variety of closely related methods of finger weaving, exemplified in the knitted stockings so long considered an indispensable feature of civilized dress. Knitting and crochet are common forms of looping, so called because they achieve a fabric bonded by a continuous series of interlocking loops, as shown in fig. 1. Like braided fabrics these have no foundation and have the same characteristic trend in one direction. They mark a technical advance, however, in requiring one very simple tool in their manufacture: the hook or knitting needle.

Looping is another ancient finger weave. Indeed, all the fundamental technics were invented thousands of years ago, modern man having merely elaborated and mechanized them to produce cheaply and in quantity the many textiles we have come to require in the complexity of our daily lives. Without extensive research one could not name the many aboriginal American peoples using this technic, but our immediate concern is with the Southwest, where Basketmakers and Pueblos alike were familiar with it. Here again the descent from ancient to recent times is unbroken, for the modern Pueblos knit their stockings, as do the Navaho; but more will be said of this in Chapter 7. Having no steel for making needles, the ancient peoples used needles of wood or of bone. For materials, various shredded vegetal fibers such as apocvnum have been used, as well as cotton, wool, and hair both human and animal.


We come now into that rudimentary field of weaving called basketry and encounter fabrics made upon a foundation. One category of basketry falls under our heading of looping, and an important, worldwide one it is: the coiled basket. Study of the detailed drawing in figure 2a reveals a structure of circular rods, the foundation, held in the form into which the maker has bent them by a series of looped stitches of stout grass or split twig, enclosing the rods. Each succeeding layer of foundation rods is bound to the preceding layer by these interlocking loops. Take away the foundation and a continuous fabric of stitching would yet remain—a looped fabric. Recognition of this fact is implied in the name Southwestern archeologists have applied to the technic of looping as exemplified in many fragments of textile found in ruins, calling it "coil without foundation." Coil with foundation seems merely an elaboration of the simpler form. It yields a stiffer product, and in so doing marks an important advance along our chain leading to the Navaho loom: form becomes a factor.

Braiding and simple looping produce only flexible fabrics, formless; but the introduction of the stiff foundation coil makes possible an object that will retain the form to which the maker has modeled it, hence we have circular baskets, even rectangular ones, of a variety of shapes. We note, too, that an important esthetic factor has come into our field, that of graceful form, with its corollary consideration of proportion in the component parts, such as rim, neck, shoulder, body, and base.

All of our Southwestern peoples, ancient and modern, made coiled basketry; it gave the Basketmakers their name, for they were notably proficient in this technic. The Navaho of modern times, however, have largely surrendered this branch of their ancient heritage to neighboring tribes, the Paiute in particular. Some of their old-time coiled baskets are shown in plate 4.


Plaiting and looping, as we have seen, produce fabrics without foundation, except for the coiled basket. Henceforth foundation is to be a factor in the weaving complex, and the fundamental technic next to be described is entirely dependent on the foundation for its successful application. Twining it is called, and figure 3 illustrates the methods. As the name implies, this torm ot weaving consists in wrapping or twining the outer strands around the inner ones, those comprising the foundation of the piece. The latter are entirely hidden if the twining is closely set, and the resultant fabric has the characteristic smooth surface texture with gentle undulations marking the hidden foundation ribs, which we associate with closely-woven loom textiles.

Twining has two principal divisions, known as single (called by Mason wrap weave) and double (plain twine) ; these are shown in a and b of figure 3. In the former a single strand of weft (the overlying material) is wrapped once around each string of warp (the foundation material), the fabric thus growing in layers of horizontal wrapping upon a vertical foundation. In double or plain twining two strands of weft are used concurrently. One passes below, the other above the foundation strip, then the two strands cross in the interval between the strips, reversing their positions before clasping the next strip of warp or foundation. This method differs from plaiting and loom weaving only in the criss-cross of weft at every stitch, and with very fine and flexible materials it produces a fabric easily mistaken for one loom-woven.

Double twining is much the commoner form of the two in the prehistoric Southwest— for in historic times this technic has been little used except in basketry. The Basketmakers used it in making blankets of furred strips of rabbit-skin wrapped about a cord of yucca or apocynum, and bags and sandals of the latter materials, like those shown in figure 4 and plate 107. These early people had no knowledge of the loom, hence were dependent for their fabrics on the simpler finger weaves already described. They made good use of the double twining process, however, producing sandals embodying many intricate patterns in stitches of varied width. In this feature the hand technics have a great advantage over the loom: they can vary at any point the stitch as well as the weft color being used, while the loom must plod along on the one stitch for which it has been rigged. Unthinkingly, one supposes that our modern machines produce endless variety in textiles; not so, they produce only monotony. The variety is in the machines, not the product, for each machine does just one thing, over and over, until its rigging is changed to a new pattern. Fortunately, though, we have many machines at work.

The prehistoric Pueblos acquired the loom at an early period of their development and neglected twining of fabrics, although they practiced the method to some extent in making sandals, occasional bags, and certain forms of basketry. The old double-twined blanket of the Basketmakers was frequently made, with feathers of the domestic turkey (a useful bird the Basketmakers did not have) used in place of rabbit-skin. Their modern descendants have carried this neglect of twining still farther, although rabbit-skin blankets are still made occasionally. The Navaho too may have been twiners in an earlier time, for they have traditions of having used vegetal fibers in garment making before the time of European sheep. In later years, however, they have made the loom their sole reliance in the textile field.

Twining has little part in our modern life. Hard to adapt to mechanical processes, its main use in that regard is for making gauzes, especially surgical bandages, for it is best adapted to fabrics of very loose texture. But as a primitive process it ranks high, giving excellent results in patient and skilful hands, as the Basketmaker sandal and the Chilkat blanket attest.


Having reviewed the three fundamental technics of weaving and noting that all were extensively used by the two Southwestern peoples who in this particular were the cultural ancestors of those later comers, the Navaho, we turn from basic methods to certain adaptations and refinements in their use. This is no abandonment of our original quest, for there can be no loom weaving without a further advance in certain of the finger technics, an advance in which material plays an outstanding part. Plaiting and twining give us the methods on which loom weaving is based (looping may be dropped as an unproductive line), and they yield good results with a broad range of materials—most of them too stiff, coarse, or weak, for successful use in the loom. Hence the need for further developments before we reach the end of our chain.

Wool, in America, is the material on which the loom depends. The term includes cotton, for in the technical sense cotton is a wool, not a bast, as Wissler (43) points out. Linen is the only bast to ride to high success upon the loom, and it was unknown to aboriginal America. Wool is a material which requires special treatment. Notably, it should be carded, and it must be spun or roved. Carding (pls. 10, 12) straightens the tangled short hairs, while spinning (pls. 13, 14) welds them into a smooth, continuous strand, as fine or coarse as the spinner may desire and of unlimited length. Carding is simply a process of combing. It is not indispensable, and was dispensed with in Chilkat blanket weaving, the hair or wool being formed into a rove by rolling it on the thigh.

Holmes (1896: 21) comments as follows on the significance of spinning in the development of the textile crafts:

The use of simple strands or parts in textile arts precedes the use of spun threads, but the one use leads very naturally to the other. In employing rushes, stems, grasses, etc., the smaller strands were doubled to secure uniformity of size, and when a number of parts were used they were combined into one by twisting or plaiting. In time the advantage in strength and pliability of twisted strands came to be recognized, and this led to the general utilization of fibrous substances, and finally to the manufacture of suitable fibers by manipulating the bark of trees and plants. Spinning was probably not devised until the weaver's art had made considerable advance, but its invention opened a new and broad field and led to the development of a magnificent industry. Semi-rigid fabrics served for a wide range of uses, as already described, but soft and pliable cloths for personal use and ornament were made possible only by the introduction of spinning.

At this point our first special appliance for weaving comes into the picture: the spindle (the needle we have, but it has other uses). This vital adjunct to weaving in wool comprises a shaft and a round weight, commonly of stone, earthenware, or wood, slipped over the end of the shaft like a collar. The weighted end is generally placed on the ground, and from the other end the instrument is twirled— either in the fingers or by rolling it along the thigh (pl. 13) or the shin. The Navaho usually spin with the fingers. The whorl or weight, besides holding the wool in place on the shaft, acts as a flywheel, retaining the momentum of the twirl and giving an even movement to the revolving shaft.


Excerpted from NAVAHO WEAVING by CHARLES AVERY AMSDEN. Copyright © 1991 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


PLATE I (pages ii-iii),
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Table of Figures,
CHAPTER X - BAYETA—1800-1863,

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