Blankets & Rugs

Last month, you may recall, in awe and wonder, I indulged my senses with my neighbor Sheri’s intricate and beautifully creative quilts. This month, spurred by Chris’ interest in tribal textiles, I’ve been equally indulgent in exploring exquisite and stunningly creative Navajo blankets and rugs.

Indigenous peoples, as we noted in an earlier post, have a different concept of land rights than later settlers, there are several tribes who moved according to the seasons in contemporary Colorado and its neighboring states.  The Navajo peoples thrived in a territory bordered by four sacred mountains, (each representing both a direction and a color, Bianca Peak, Mt Taylor, San Francisco Peak and Hesperus Peak), in what is now New Mexico,  Arizona, Utah and Colorado.  They lived in comparative harmony with the natural world until Western expansion brought them in conflict with white people who believed it was their duty to “civilize” (or perhaps “brutalize” is a more apt word,) the Navajos.  Sad, how this is often the misguided pattern of conquering peoples.

In territory now known for beef cattle, the Navajo raised large flocks of sheep and from the early eighteenth century painstakingly wove their wool into complex and distinctive blankets for warmth and clothing.  Later, they also wove rugs, often for trading.  Following Chris’ curiosity we visited our local tribal rug store. Although the owner stocks rugs from across the world, I wondered if he would have authentic Navajo blankets and rugs, as they can be both rare and expensive, some early examples are worth up to half a million dollars. Best not to let the cat throw up on one of those! To our wonder and delight, he did have a few nineteenth century blankets, and several rugs from more recent times, sporting more modest price tags.

Navajo Rugs

We learned there’s a whole process of producing usable yarn from raw, (dirty) fleece. The wool was combed or carded to encourage the fibers to straighten, then hand spun into long strands, and re-spun to achieve a regular slim thickness that could be strung onto  a loom. The looms were upright sometimes with tree trunks defining their outer borders. In the early years the wool was dyed with naturally occurring dyes, red from cochineal and lac cactus insects, yellow from sunflowers, brown from walnuts, green from a combination of indigo and snakeweed, and blue from indigo itself. Although indigo was produced in India and the Far East for centuries, it was introduced to South Carolina in the mid eighteenth century. Interested readers can learn more from Natasha Boyd’s perceptive novel, The Indigo Girl, based on the life of Eliza Lucas who, at sixteen, pioneered its production on her father’s plantation. The dyed yarns were then woven into symmetrical and often geometric patterns of arresting hue. As time passed, the Navajo people traded for synthetic aniline dyes introduced from Europe, or even for “Germantown” pre-dyed yarn. When wool was scarce, they also traded, (or raided) for premade blankets, which they unraveled and re-wove using their traditional patterns and colors.

Although we can readily trace the evolution of Navajo blankets and rugs, there is an aching void in the years from 1864-1868, when Navajo settlements and livestock were torched and the people led on a forced march to Basque Redondo where they were interned.  Many died of the bitter cold and of starvation. More disturbing evidence to reinforce that power corrupts.

On a happier note, Chris was thrilled to leave the store with his own (affordable) Navajo rug. As you can see in the picture below, he eschewed the geometric designs that caught my eye in favor of a “tree of life design.”

Cornstalk Rug - 1

This depicts a central cornstalk as opposed to a tree, surrounded by Navajo symbols, wedding baskets, thorns, eagle feathers and birds. 

Can’t wait for it to adorn our dining room walls safely out of reach of our cats!

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