Authentic Native American Indian Rugs & Blankets: Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Pueblo & Rio Grande Weavings
Medicine Man Gallery specializes in authentic Navajo rugs and Navajo blankets including early Classic Navajo Blankets, Chiefs Blankets, Transitional Blankets and Navajo weavings from Ganado, Two Grey Hills, Teec Nos Pos, Crystal, Toadalena, Bisti, Chinle, Wide Ruins, Burntwater, Coal Mine Mesa, Crystal, Germantown, Klagetoh, Nazlini, and Teec Nos Pos. Navajo rugs and blankets can be divided into four periods: Classic Period, 1650-1868, Late Classic Period, 1865-1880, Transitional Period, 1868,1895, Rug Period, 1895-Present.
Navajo textile authority Dr. J. Mark Sublette explains why Navajo blankets are so valuable. In short, it comes down to three factors: scarcity, rarity, and artistry.
Navajo blankets are an older form of Navajo weavings, produced from around 1840-1890. These textiles were soft and drapable, meant to be wrapped around the body and worn - they are often called “wearing blankets” for this reason. (Note: Saddle blankets, a smaller and thicker type of weaving, are also highly collectible but don’t command the same price point as a wearing blanket.)
Navajo blankets are so valuable today for three reasons: rarity, scarcity, and artistry.
Even at the peak of production, Navajo weavings were hard to come by. A blanket could take a weaver up to a year to make - not including the amount of time it took to raise the sheep for the wool.
These blankets were highly valued trade items among tribes that did not have weaving traditions of their own. Even at that time, Navajo blankets were expensive to acquire, so only the most affluent tribe members could afford one.
Plains cultures, in particular, valued Navajo blankets for their warmth, comfort, and visual beauty. A man on horseback wearing one of these weavings could be identified by the design of his blanket before his face’s features came into view.
In terms of the Navajo weaving traditions, Navajo wearing blankets were only made for about 50 years. The end of the era came as mechanical weaving technologies advances signaled the end of the art form as affordable commercial blankets such as those produced by Pendleton Woolen Mills became widely available.
Early blankets from the mid-1800s are the rarest, with some forms only having 50 or so known surviving examples.
The rarity of Navajo blankets makes them highly prized by collectors, many of whom consider a fine Navajo blanket to be the cornerstone of their collection. The combination of rarity and collector enthusiasm is reflected in the high prices of these textiles.
In terms of visual appeal, Navajo blankets have a level of artistic sophistication that rivals any form of modern art. Whether simple bold stripes, as seen in early blanket examples, or complex “eye-dazzler” geometric patterns when synthetic dyes became available, Navajo blankets are studies in balance, composition, and contrast.
What makes Navajo textiles all the more breathtaking is how simple the tools are that the weavers would use to create them. The looms are simple, usually erected out-of-doors, under a tree branch. Patterns were (and still are) plotted in the weaver’s head - to execute a harmonious design requires expert artistic ability and multidimensional thinking.
In terms of artisanship, all Navajo weavings are painstaking, manual endeavors. As is common even today, the weaver’s family raised the sheep; caring for the flock was a family affair. Early Navajo weavings were usually made from special wool from the Churro sheep breed - known for its long, silky fibers. Later, as the Navajo moved into making rugs, they incorporated other sheep varieties into their flocks.
After shearing the sheep, the wool is cleaned, carded, and spun by hand. Even today, Navajo weavers do not use spinning wheels; the wool is stretched and twisted onto a spindle by hand. Then the blanket is woven on the unique Navajo loom.
As mentioned before, a fine blanket could take the weaver up to a year to make.
Making an authentic Navajo rug is a labor-intensive process for the weaver. In addition to raising the sheep (which many of the weavers still do), the wool must be shorn, cleaned, carded, spun, and sometimes, dyed. Weaving a large rug can take a year or more.
One thing to keep in mind is that, aside from the actual hands-on time needed to weave a Navajo rug, it often can take a weaver years to become proficient at weaving in the first place. Girls, and sometimes boys, usually start learning as children and progress in difficulty as they learn.
Important factors that impact an authentic Navajo rug's price are the fineness of the yarn and weave, the size, and the design. Navajo rugs are woven on the same kind of simple loom that has been in use by the Navajo for 300 years - so complex, balanced designs are a true testament to the weaver’s skill and artistry.
A common issue for new collectors is determining if a Navajo rug is authentic. Knowing what to look for is especially crucial because weavings from Mexico can resemble Navajo rugs and can confuse a novice. Beware, especially, a weaving described as “Navajo style.” This term lets you know that you are looking at a Mexican reproduction and not an authentic Navajo rug.
So, how can you tell the difference?
First, authentic Navajo rugs are made with a unique style of vertical loom that uses a continuous warp, which means the base wool yarn that is used isn’t cut off at the ends; instead, the warp thread goes from the bottom of the loom to the top, and then loops down to the bottom, then loops to the top and so on. The warp yarn creates the foundation of the Navajo rug, whereas the weft yarn creates the design pattern.
Mexican looms are horizontally oriented and use multiple pieces of warp threads that are fringed on the ends. If you see fringed ends, you are likely looking at a Mexican-made rug with individual warp threads instead of a Navajo rug made with one, long continuous warp. (This rule does not always hold, though. Some early Navajo “Germantown” style weavings may have added fringe.)
The absence of fringe still might not mean you are looking at a Navajo rug or blanket, though. Sometimes, Mexican weavers will tuck the warp ends in to make it look continuous, even if it is not. In these cases, the weaving is usually thicker at the ends and then thins out.
Second, look for the presence of “lazy lines.” A lazy line is a diagonal, 45-degree angle line formed as the Navajo weaver creates the rug. The presence of one can be a diagnostic characteristic of an authentic Navajo rug (although knock-off rugs also try to have similar looking lines in the weave).
A lazy line is formed as the weaver works. The weaver sits in front of the loom and works in a section, weaving in the weft yarn in the desired pattern. The weaver then moves over and works on another section. By working in this way, it creates these beautiful lines in the body of the rug.
The key thing to remember is that if you are uncomfortable or unsure whether a rug you are considering is an authentic Navajo rug, do not buy it. Instead, work with a reputable dealer you can trust to ensure that you are looking at an authentic Navajo rug.