Sonachi Navajo Weavings of Denver


History | Types of Rugs | What Is A Quality Rug?

Navajo Churro Sheep

Since 1536, Navajos have been weaving wool into functional and beautiful clothing and blankets. They used the resources of their harsh environment, new materials, and skills learned through trade and contact with other societies to create not only a functional material, but something with lasting beauty. As part of Sonachi's goal to create a sustaining market for this exceptional work, we offer classes to the public, most free of charge.

Through our travels and contact with Internet users, we find there is a limited understanding of what distinguishes Navajo weaving from many other types of textiles. In fact, many of the rugs offered in antique shows and on-line auctions are actually from other sources. Typically these rugs are created by weavers with significantly less skill or modern looms that require less effort to create a weaving of this type.

If you are interested in buying a rug, we recommend you spend time learning about Navajo weavings. This way your purchase can be more than a trinket that looks good on a wall for the short term, it can represent a significant and profitable investment in art.

The links at the left represent a brief primer in Navajo weavings. If you would like more information, please check our calendar or contact us to find more information. One of our typical classes explains weaving methods, styles, looms, and the changes in weaving techniques due to the influence of diverse cultures, materials and trends. During these classes, samples of early 20th century weavings and modern weavings are presented.

A Brief History of Navaho Weaving

Archeologists believe that the Navajos are the newcomers in the Southwest and they may have learned to weave from their neighbors, the Hopi. The Navajos say they learned to weave from Spider Woman.

They first wove cotton and flax that grew wild in the region. When the Spanish brought churro sheep, they began to weave these same intricate designs in wool fiber.

The oldest pieces of Navajo weaving in existence are dated from 1805. They come from Canyon del Muerto and were woolen blankets found on the victims of an attack.

Although the Navajos have embraced modern conveniences such as pick-up trucks, computers and cell phones, they have not changed their method of weaving in any significant way since 1536. They continue to use a vertical, upright loom. They continue to shear their own sheep, spin and dye their own wool, and weave entirely by hand. Navajo weaving is distinctive and often includes symbols unique to the culture (please see "What is a Quality Rug"). Each demonstrates the amazing adaptability of the people as they incorporated a Hopi loom, Spanish sheep, English bayeta cloth, German yarns and some American mordants and dyes.

Types and Styles of Navaho Weaving

The trading post system of exchange was the beginning of regional styles and designs for Navajo weaving. Lorenzo Hubbell at the trading post in Ganado encouraged weavers to produce colors and designs he felt would sell to buyers off the reservation. J.B. Moore produced a catalog that showed various styles and designs at the turn of the century.

Today, the regional styles are still prevalent, but a weaver may produce designs from many areas of the reservation, and not just the area where he or she lives. The most popular styles today are: Two Grey Hills, Ganado Red, Crystal, Burnham, storm pattern, pictorial, Chief’s Blanket, and Teec Nos Pos. Each weaver expresses that style with their own touch and flair, similar to a musician creating a new song within a genre.

Storm: This style represents a summer storm with lightening traveling from the center to the four corners, which represent the Four Sacred Mountains of the Navaho people.
Yeibechei: This rug represents the dancers who perform in Yei costumes. It is distinguished from a Yei rug by the presence of dancing feet.
Two Gray Hills: This style typically uses solely the natural, undyed colors of the wool including white, gray and black. This style is also noted for exceptionally tightly woven, small stitches.
Ganado: One of the most well-known styles, this style is predominantly geometric shapes with a strong red component in the color scheme.
Third Phase Chiefs Blanket: Taking its inspiration from Chief's blankets created in the early 20th century, these rugs are distinguished by their strong stripes and cross patterns as well as a color scheme of blue, red, black and white.

What makes a top quality weaving?

The easiest way to obtain a true Navajo weaving is to buy it from a reliable dealer who provides a tag of origin, description and the name of the weaver.

Beyond this, a key clue is the way the weaving is bound. Navajo weavings do not have "fringe." There should be no ridges along the top and bottom and there should be a four-cord tassel at each corner. There should be side selvage cords. The colors, especially the grays, should be tweedy or sometimes even streaked. Navajo weavings are tightly packed and have a close warp to weft relationship.

A rug is not a Navajo weaving if it has:
A loose weave
Uniform color throughout
Ridges along the top and bottom
Fringed ends
When choosing a weaving:
Fold it in half first in one direction and then the other. This helps you determine if the sides are even.
Spread the weaving on the ground and see if it lays flat.
Check the tightness of the weaving. Those with smaller "stitches" are typically more valuable. Tight weavings are often softer and more pliable.
Other factors that typically increase the value of a rug are:
The Weaver -- Experienced weavers who have won many awards in contests and who are highly ranked within the tribe typically produce more valuable rugs.
The Dyes -- Vegetal dyes are more valuable than commercial dyes.
The Wool -- Wool gathered from churro sheep is more rare and represents a return to the source of the first sheep Navajo weavers used. There has been a recent resurgence in raising these sheep and harvesting their wool, but it is still less prevalent than wool from other breeds of sheep.
Intricate Designs -- Some designs, like snowflakes, require incredible skill and more time for the weaver to create, increasing rug value.
Most important, any buyer should truly love the weaving they purchase. A beautiful weaving will bring the buyer years of pleasure and can easily become an heirloom for future generations.