Navajo Rugs

In the American Southwest today one of the most popular art forms sought by museums, collectors, and tourists is the Navajo rug. While the Navajo had been weaving for centuries and their works were traded over a wide area, the development of the Navajo rug really started in 1881 with the arrival of the railroad. The railroad connected the Navajo with the globalized market for native crafts. This market, however, was controlled by non-Indian traders who held federal licenses. The idea of allowing Indians to participate in a free market ran counter to the “civilization” programs run by the federal government in which it was assumed that Indian people were somehow a “dependent” people who must be guided, managed, and controlled by the more “civilized” non-Indians.


The incorporation of the Navajo into a global market meant that the weavers were increasingly incorporated into the cash economy of this market. The period from 1875 to 1890 is generally considered a transition period for the Navajo weavers. During this time they began to use commercial American-made yarns known collectively as Germantown. These yarns were dyed with aniline (a dye derived from coal tar) and provided primarily in 4-ply.

It was also during this transition period that a new element was added to Navajo weaving: the pictorial weaving. Items such as cows, trains, American flags, and other items began to appear in the weavings.

By 1887 the Indian superintendent for the Navajo estimated that two-thirds of their weavings-primarily blankets-were now being sold. Two years later, the Indian superintendent reports that while there were just nine federally licensed traders on the reservation, there were about 30 trading posts located just off the reservation. He noted that the

“proximity of trading posts has radically changed their native costumes and modified many of the earlier barbaric traits, and also affords them good markets for their wool, peltry, woven fabrics, and other products.”

Hubbell 1880s

The Hubbell Trading Post is shown above.

By 1890, the Navajo were producing about $25,000 worth of trade goods each year. Their involvement with this larger market had an impact on native crafts. Since pottery and basketry did not have the same commercial appeal as other crafts, the people were producing less.

The Rug Period of Navajo Weaving is usually dated from 1890 to 1920. At this time, the weavers began making thicker weavings which could be used as rugs for sales outside of the reservation. Regional styles began to develop which were associated with traders or trading posts. The traders, sensitive to the tastes of non-Indians in distant markets, actively collaborated with the weavers to produce designs which would sell. One of the design features which was introduced in 1890 was the use of borders.

One of the major supporters of the Navajo rugs was the Harvey Company which featured them in their eating houses and newsstands along the route of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. In 1900, the Harvey Company established the Indian Building in Albuquerque which featured Navajo weavers plying their craft so that the tourists could watch. Fred Harvey also contracted with the trader Lorenzo Hubbell to take his entire output of good quality Navajo weavings. Harvey insisted that the business needed standardization with regard to size, quality, and price.

Since the traders, particularly the Harvey Company, frowned on the use of Germantown yarn, the rugs tended to be woven with coarse handspun wool which was either dyed with aniline or left in its natural color. In 1897, J.B. Moore, who had the trading post at Crystal, New Mexico, began sending wool east to be washed and carded. This thoroughly cleaned wool could be more easily spun and consequently the technical quality of the rugs woven by the weavers in his area improved.

In addition to providing his weavers with cleaned wool, Moore also had a friend who designed some new styles using some traditional Navajo figures combined with non-Navajo motifs such as swastikas and frets which were common in the oriental rugs of this period. The patterns were enclosed by borders and favored natural wool colors: black, gray, brown, tan, and white.

Trader Juan Lorenzo Hubbell in the Ganado area encouraged weavers to use traditional Navajo designs from earlier time periods. In his trading post he hung watercolor design samples to help inspire the weavers.

Hubbell Blankets

The inside of the Hubbell Trading Post is shown above. Note the designs on the walls.

Razzle Dazzle

Shown above is a small rug in the razzle-dazzle style woven by a young girl and sold at the Hubbell Trading Post.

Ganado Red

Shown above is an example of the Ganado Red style from my personal collection.

The Crystal tradition led to the distinctive style known as Two Gray Hills, named for the trading post on the east side of the Chuska Mountains south of Shiprock. At Two Gray Hills, the old Crystal style became elaborated and the technical excellence of spinning and weaving improved.

Two Grey Hills

Shown above is a small Two Gray Hills rug from my personal collection.

The borders introduced by the Crystal tradition spread throughout the reservation and by 1910 could be found on most rugs.

In 1898, Navajo weavers responded to the patriotic fever of the Spanish-American War by making American flag blankets.

In 1903, John Lorenzo Hubbell began to provide Navajo weavers with commercially processed wool at his trading post in Ganado, Arizona. Other traders soon followed suit.

In 1910, the United States government in its infinite wisdom introduced Rambouillet sheep to the reservation. These sheep had oily, short-staple, crimpy wool rather than the long-staple wavy wool of the Navajo sheep. It is difficult, some say impossible, for a Navajo weaver to clean this wool with the traditional hand washing. Rugs woven from this wool were coarse and the whites tended to have a dirty gray cast. This helped bring Navajo weaving to a new low and by 1920 the demand for Navajo rugs and the prices paid for them had declined significantly.

In 1931, a group of traders, concerned about the protection of the Navajo rug, met in Gallup, New Mexico and formed the United Indian Traders Association. They advocated that the following standards to be used for Navajo blankets and rugs:

“Material used shall be virgin wool or virgin angora wool, the same shall be hand-washed, hand-carded and hand-dyed, the warp shall be all wool and hand-spun, the wool shall be all wool and hand-spun and the blanket shall be hand-woven by an Indian.”

In 1932, a number of Navajo sheep ranchers attended the Denver stock show and as a result they acquired a prize-winning Dorset ram in an attempt to improve the quality of wool available for blankets.

Today, Navajo rugs continue to be popular and continue to battle against cheap, imported imitations which use Navajo designs or designs which pretend to be Navajo. There are well over a thousand weavers on the Navajo reservation who do museum quality work and tourists can obtain high quality rugs at most of the trading posts on the reservation. The Hubbell Trading Post, which played an important role in the development of twentieth century Navajo rugs, is currently operated by the National Park Service. Tourists visiting Hubbell can not only purchase high quality rugs, but can also watch the weavers in action. While it is not uncommon for tourists to grumble at what they perceive as the high prices for these rugs, keep in mind that most weavers make well under minimum wage for the hours they spend at the loom.

Navajo Weaving

Even the most casual tourist who travels through the Navajo lands of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah cannot help but notice the abundance of fine weavings commonly called “rugs” which are offered for sale at roadside stands, tourist traps, restaurants, museums, and fine arts galleries. Navajo weavings are some of the best-known and most easily recognized American Indian art forms.

Navajo weaving trading post

According to the oral tradition, at some point in the mythological past, Spider Woman taught Navajo men how to make an upright loom and then instructed Navajo women on how to use this loom to weave beauty. Beauty is an important part of Navajo culture-it is not a matter of being surrounded by beauty, but being involved in the process of beauty.

Navajo weaving is not just a way of making cloth or textiles: it is a form of artistic expression. While oral tradition gives Spider Woman credit for teaching weaving to the Navajo, the archaeology suggests an additional dimension to the story. Sometime in the 16th century the Navajo learned weaving from the Pueblo people in the Southwest and for more than a century, Navajo weavings closely resembled those of the Pueblos. Both the Navajo and the Pueblos at this time wove the same kinds of clothing.

Navajo Manta

There are some major differences between Navajo weaving and Pueblo weaving: in Pueblo culture, the men do the weaving, while in Navajo culture weaving is generally women’s work.

Among the Navajo, it is the process of weaving, not necessarily the final product, which is important. Weaving provides an opportunity to make individual decisions, to discipline one’s thought process, to practice self-control, patience, and tenacity, and to develop one’s skill. The process of weaving is closely attuned to spiritual concepts. Working at her loom, the weaver seeks to create a single whole that blends fine and bold contrasts in color, feature, and design. In this way, the weaver seeks to emulate the process by which the Holy People created the world.  

When a Navajo weaver sits down before her loom to start a new weaving, she has a design in her mind-it is not written down and it is not a design which she has done before. Navajo weavings are always designed anew and the designs are always changing, moving, and flowing. The Navajo weavers see the process of weaving and their designs as a form of communication. In this way, the process of Navajo weaving is like a language with codes and conventions that carry meanings embedded in specific historical, cultural and familial contexts.


Weaving with cotton was common in the southwest prior to the arrival of the Spanish. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Navajo acquired churro sheep and began weaving with wool. Within a relatively short period of time they became proficient in weaving wool and by the early 18th century they were already selling their textiles to both Spanish and Pueblo communities.

During the 19th century, Navajo wearing blankets were traded throughout the Southwest and into adjacent culture areas. These blankets are woven wider than long and are worn by both men and women, draped around the shoulders. Outside of the Southwest, these blankets became prestige items and are often referred to as “chiefs’ blankets”.  These blankets were so tightly woven that they would shed water. The use of indigo dyes and costly yarns meant that they commanded a high price. On the Great Plains, only those people with significant resources could afford such a blanket, thus the designation of Chief blankets.

Chief Blanket

The Chief blanket is based on a simple striped weaving pattern. The blankets had dark horizontal stripes which were organized into a solid broad band at the blanket’s center. At the top and bottom there were bands which were half as wide as the center band. Between the center and the border bands there would be narrower alternating black and white stripes.

The earliest known Chief blanket, dating to about 1775, consists of evenly spaced alternating brown and white stripes. There are four rows of narrow stripes at each end. By the early part of the 19th century, Navajo weavers broadened the stripes giving them an additional sense of depth. Outlining the horizontal dark brown stripes with deeply saturated indigo blue added even more depth to the design.

By 1850 many Navajo weavers had adopted a technique known as tapestry weave and added geometric forms to the Chief blanket. The horizontal plane is interrupted with twelve vibrant red rectangular bars. When the blanket is draped about the body, the vertical elements are visible down the back and front of the wearer.

About 1860, Navajo weavers began adding terraced triangles and diamonds to the design of the Chief blanket.

By the end of the 19th century, Navajo weavers were using a two-faced weave. This means that one pattern could be developed on the front, and a different pattern, usually one featuring simple stripes, could be done on the reverse side.

In addition to blankets, Navajo weavers also produced a number of other woven items, including sash belts, garters, saddle cinches, women’s dresses, knitted socks, and leggings.

Navajo Blanket

While in today’s market, Navajo rugs are most frequently woven and traded, this is an aspect of Navajo weaving that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century in response to a globalized market for American Indian goods. This will be discussed in a separate essay.  

Pueblo Weaving

For more than a thousand years, American Indian agriculturalists have been living in villages in what is now Arizona and New Mexico. When the Spanish first encountered these villages, many of which had multi-story apartment complexes built from stone, they referred to them as “pueblos,” the Spanish word for village.  

Europeans have grouped these diverse people together under the designation Pueblo Indians based on a few common traits: they are agriculturalists who grow corn, beans, and squash; they built permanent villages with a central plaza; and most have kivas (underground ceremonial centers). They are not, however, a single people, tribe, nation, or group: the peoples grouped together as Pueblos speak six mutually unintelligible languages and occupy more than 30 villages in a rough crescent more than 400 miles in length.

NM Pueblo Map

The map above shows the current Pueblos in New Mexico. Not shown are the Hopi Pueblos which are in Arizona.

The Pueblos are generally divided into two major groups: (1) eastern (Tanoan and Keresan speakers) with a permanent water source which enables them to practice irrigated agriculture, and (2) western (Hopi, Hopi-Tewa, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna) who rely on dry-land agricul┬Čture.


Acoma Pueblo is shown above.

Zuni Pueblo 1850

An 1850 sketch of Zuni is shown above.

The Pueblos have a long tradition of weaving. For many centuries prior to the European invasion of North America, Pueblo weavers were making cloth which was traded over long distances. Fabrics were woven from a variety of different plant materials-both domestic and wild-and it was not uncommon for human hair, dog hair, and wild animal hair to be incorporated into fabrics. The important plant materials used for weaving textiles included milkweed, hemp, mesquite, cliff rose, willow, yucca, agave, stool, and bear grass. In addition, both feathers and fur were also used in weaving. Bird feathers were used in making warm blankets.

One of the plant fibers used for weaving was, and sometimes still is, yucca which can be processed to produce a linen-like fabric. Among the Zuni, the central leaves of the yucca plant were gathered and each leaf was folded into a piece that was about 10 centimeters (3.5 inches) long. These pieces were then placed in a pot of boiling water together with some wood ash. The skin would then be removed from the leaves and chewed (generally by the children). After this, the fibers could be separated and straightened. After the fibers had dried-usually by hanging them in a storage room-they would be soaked in cold water and then rubbed between the hands to soften them. The softened fibers would then be pulled into a fluffy mass which would allow them to be spun and woven like cotton.  

Pueblo weavers used two basic types of looms. The back strap loom was used to make sashes and belts. The vertical loom was used for producing larger fabrics, including blanks, ponchos, and cloth for making dresses and shirts. The vertical loom can be anchored on a ceiling beam on the top and then on four floor anchors on the bottom.

The backstrap loom is attached to an interior wall and then tension is maintained by a backstrap which allows the weaver to change the tension in the loom by changing the position of the body. The cloth produced using the backstrap loom is narrower than that produced with the vertical loom.  

Pueblo Sash

Shown above is a sash.

The development of loom weaving in the Southwest coincided with the introduction of domesticated cotton. By 425 BCE, the Hohokam in Arizona were raising cotton and trading it widely. By 700 CE, the Ancestral Puebloan people (sometimes called Anasazi by archaeologists) were growing cotton in New Mexico. Upright looms appear shortly after this.

By 1260 CE, the Hopi village of Homol’ovi was the center of cotton trade between the Hopi and other tribes in the Southwest. Homol’ovi had 200 rooms and had an estimated population of about 200 people.

At Zuni Pueblo, men traditionally spun and wove cotton. The cotton they used, however, they did not grow themselves, but obtained from the Hopi.

Among the Hopi, weaving was a traditional male activity. Hopi cotton cloth was a highly valued trade item among Indian people in the region. Hopi textiles, including the coarse white cotton lengths used for kilts, sashes, and shawls, was traded throughout the Southwest and south into Mexico.  

According to the Hopi oral tradition, it was Spider Woman who taught the Hopi how to weave cotton in the ancient time. The efforts of the weaver are therefore viewed as a manifestation of the creative power of spirituality. Weaving is not seen as an act in which one creates something by oneself; it is seen as an act in which one uncovers a pattern that was already there.

After sheep were introduced to the area by the Spanish, wool began to replace cotton in Pueblo textiles.