Tribal Expressions Navajo Information

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The bond between churro and Navajo goes back centuries. The small, sturdy churro, brought over by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, were first acquired by the Navajo through trading with Franciscan friars and raiding their Hispanic neighbors across the Rio Grande in the late seventeenth century.As the Navajo began to settle raising sheep became a way of life. The animals provided meat for sustenance and wool for weaving. The sheep were a symbol of the good life and came to represent wealth.

Churro fleeces are all but greaseless, making them easy to clean and wonderfully porous for dyeing. The long silky fibers of the churro, laid side by side, could be spun into a lustrous yarn. As the churro flourished,so did Navajo weaving. By the 1750s, the form had developed a palette and character all its own. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Navajo were considered the outstanding weavers of the Southwest.

In the 1860s the U. S. Government sent Kit Carson to round up the Navajo people and, in so doing, destroyed huge numbers of their sheep. Those who survived the incarceration at Bosque Redondo were released to the reservation area in 1865. Each was assigned only two sheep. The sheep they were given,however, were not their native churro, but, American merino. It seemed that American textile manufacturers refused to buy churro fleeces because the long hairs tangled in their machines. The manufacturers demanded that Navajo produce shorter-haired fleeces through cross-breading, first with a variety of merino sheep originally bred in France, now raised in the western United States for both its wool and mutton; and Corriedale, a breed of rather large white-faced sheep, originally developed in New Zealand which produce good wool and mutton lambs, and, finally with French Rambouillet.

In the 1930s and '40s, the U. S. Government's stock reduction policy,ostensibly meant to curtail overgrazing, further reduced the churro population. During these years, churro were singled out and shot because of the problems they caused wool manufactures.

Navajo weavers had problems with the short-haired fleeces. Yarn spun the old way split and broke, and the greasier fleeces had to be washed many times. The oils in the wool kept dyes from being absorbed. Weavers were forced to go off the reservation to buy expensive manufactured wool. The commercially dyed, machine spun yarn profoundly changed the character of Navajo textiles.

Shearing is usually accomplished in early spring when the fleece has attain edits greatest thickness. Ordinarily metal shears are used. A skillful worker will clip from the neck toward the tail, making efforts to keep the fleece in one piece. Select wool is obtained from the back, at the shoulders, and along the flanks. Shorter fibers are separated for other uses.

Shorn wool for weaving, is hand cleaned of burrs, sticks and other debris. A fluffing technique accompanies the general cleaning and the wool is often laid out for airing and drying of animal oils. If the shorn wool is exceptionally dirty, a wet washing may be necessary to remove saturated impurities.

Carding straightens handfuls of the washed wool into loose, untangled uniform pads. The wool is fluffed by raking it across two hand-held, metal-toothed tow cards. This combs the wool into slender fibers that can be easily spun. Carding also serves as a second cleaning, removing most remaining particles of grit. Carding is the least enjoyable task in the rug making process.It requires considerable strength in the hands and arms in an unnatural cramped position.

SPINNING: The Navajo technique of spinning involves a simple spindle stick and whorl, about 12" long. The base of the spindle is seated on the ground with the shaft twirled on the thigh with one hand while the other regulates thickness of the fiber Fiber thickness determines the ultimate strength and weight of the rug. Two spinnings are usually required to produce weft yarns. Additional respinnings produce finer and finer threads.

Before the yarn is dyed, it is necessary that it be washed. After a thorough washing, including at least two rinses, care is taken not to squeeze, twist,or wring out the wool, to avoid lumping and knotting of the fibers. Instead,the wool is floated freely in water and carefully placed on boards, or rocks,to sun-dry.

The early Navajo obtained lathering soap from roots of the broad-leaved yucca, mainly Yucca baccata in central Navajo country, and from the narrow leaved yuccas, such as Yucca glauca and Yucca standleyi. Both are used fresh or dried and may be gathered at any season of the year. The broad leaved yucca is the stronger and more desirable of the two.

In the natural wool tones, including shades of tan, beige, and gray, colors can be attained by blending desired amounts of black, brown, and white wools.If a weaver wishes to dye her own yarn, it is done after the spinning and washing. Colors derived from natural vegetable dyes require considerable time and effort. Plants are either boiled or fermented with the yarn to color the wool. Commercial aniline are also used by some weavers to supplement their vegetable colors.

Many weavers now choose machine-carded, chemically dyed, prespun skeins of yarn for consistency in weight and color.

The Navajo loom consists of two uprights and two cross pieces of log-size wood 6 to 8 inches in diameter, usually cut from pinon trees. The lower cross-piece, serving as the base, must be composed of the heaviest wood to support the balance of the frame. Legs of wood may be constructed at right angles to the uprights to serve as additional supports. It is very important that the entire structure be rigid.

The warp thread, or strand, serves as a rug's foundation and determines its finished size. The stringing of the warp is done on a warp frame consisting of two long boards forming the sides and two securely tied cross-pieces at each end.

The warp is one continuous strand that is wound in a figure eight pattern at approximately 1/4" intervals around the cross pieces. Constant tension of the warp is maintained as the strand is passed over the cross piece on the outside and returned under the cross piece on the inside, thus creating warp pairs. The two figure eight patterns created are called sheds, established by the insertion and tieing of two sticks, called shed rods, into the warp pattern. During actual weaving, manipulation of the shed rods creates the needed spaces for passing of the weft threads. To secure their equally spaced position on the cross piece, the warp is then edged off by a twining cord to form a stabilizing top and bottom border.

When the entire warp is strung and secured, the warp frame is dismantled and the warp is transferred and mounted on the permanent upright loom bellyaching the warp cross piece, now referred to as the warp beam (upper) and the web beam (lower), with a lightweight rope. The warp beam is actually attached to another dowel, called the stick, that can be rope lowered or raised to desired heights. The shed rods are then untied, but not removed.The warp is straightened within the loom frame and a desired tension is applied to make the entire harness a taut unit.

The Navajo learned to weave, spin, and dye from the Pueblo's. The basic Navajo weave is the tapestry technique in which the warp threads are usually completely concealed by the weft yarn. To facilitate passing of the wefts through the warp lines, shed rods are employed. The upper shed rod is a loosely inserted stick placed between alternating warps. The lower shed rod (sometimes called a heddle rod), is secured to opposite alternating warp threads. By manipulating shed rod and heddle, odd numbered warps can be brought forward and separated from even numbered a batten (18" to 24" long, 1" wide) is inserted and turned on edge. The wefts ultimately are tamped into place by a wooden toothed comb called the fork.

DESIGNS: Traditional Navajo designs have been handed down from one generation to another. Repetition of colors and basic motifs is often characteristic of a weaving family or region. In the classic period, rugs were sold at the trading post nearest the weaver's home. According to experts,a good to average weaver can accomplish approximately one square foot of weave per day.

EXAMPLE: 3 x 5 vegetable-dyed rug (high quality)
Activity Hours
Shearing (2 sheep) 2
Cleaning 10
Carding 40
Spinning 90
Washing 8
Native plant gatherings (5 colors) 4
Dyeing 40
Loom Construction 16
Warping the loom 18
Weaving 160
Total 388 hours/
48.5 days
Probable Sale $1,000.00
Earnings $2.58 per hour, $20.62 per day

(Above chart compiled by Garlands and Wide Ruins Trading Post, August,1973).

It is understandable that at an average of $2.58 per hour (and many are woven for a lot less), the weaving of a Navajo rug is hard work for the money. The cost is justified. The current price varies considerably from one rug style to another.

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