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 “eyedazzler” 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.