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The basic principle of weaving is the same everywhere. There must be a warp and a woof or weft, which is woven through the warp to form a textile. Also there must inevitably be a frame or loom upon which to string the warp and to hold the threads in place while the weft is woven through it. In its most elementary form this could be a few independent long threads, each suspended from the horizontal branch of a tree, and with a stone or heavy piece of clay attached to the bottom to steady the string.
To the customary warp and woof the Indian weavers added a distinctive technique, which was rarely if ever elsewhere to be observed. They employed a variety of bast fibers (various vegetable fibers) plus hairs of certain animals, skins and furs of animals and plumage of birds. These were added to the more conventional foundation threads for woven material of linen, wool and cotton. From all these. added materials unusually lovely fabrics were evolved.
Some of the oldest known examples of American Indian weaving are reputed to be finer than those found in any other place in the world. They even surpassed the textiles woven by the highly skilled Coptic weavers of ancient Egypt, whose work has long been celebrated for its marvelous technique.
We do not generally realize that these tribes of American Indians were as widely diflercnt in ideas and customs of living as were the nations of Europe. In terms of handicraft there were weaving tribes and non-weaving tribes. As a rule those Indians who shaped the skins of animals for their coverings did not do weaving. Some of them were almost exclusively devoted to such occupations as hunting and fishing, while others spent their time at farming. The Navajo people of our southwest have won chief fame among all the North American tribes as weavers.
The Spaniards who crossed the Rio Grande in 1540 brought the first sheep into this country. The agricultural Indians of the Pueblos did not have enough feed for sheep. Thus the nomad Indians who were continuously wandering from place to place became the shepherds, as they were better able to find new pastures for their flock. Each family traveled with its loom.
The first Navajo blankets were made to wear over the shoulders. They were woven in simple dark and light stripes of natural colored wool. A hundred years ago the simple stripes were broken by zigzag lines, making a design known as the "terrace pattern." In the main, the technique of weaving Navajo patterns was to work directly on the warp as the actual weft, by using the darning type of stitch. Some twenty years later the Indians tired of these patterns and introduce diamond designs.
The Indians were particularly attracted to bright red and, when the Spaniards came, traded anything they had for a bit of red baize. This fabric was like billiard table cloth and is thought to have been part of the Spanish uniform. The Indians patiently unraveled this baize and then wove it into their textiles. The dye must have been excellent since these early "bayeta" (red) blankets have never lost their rich color, and collectors prize them highly. Later the Navajos found out how to make other colors from native roots and barks, and were given indigo with which to produce blue. A wider variety of color was then woven into their designs, which are virile and primitive in both delineation and color, and often have much symbolic interest.
The Navajos have never lost their interest in this craft and are making rugs today which are as good as the earlier ones but for color, which has suffered from hasty methods of dyeing the wool. The beautiful and permanent colors produced from the old dye formulas probably handed down from a long line of ancestors have been supplanted by the cheap commercial coal tar colors. A fine collection of antique Navajo rugs, on the other hand, will show lovely subtle pinks, green-blues, beige and honey colors and sage greens, rather than the harsher modern hues.
The Navajos produce a great many rugs for today's market, and although the so-called Navajo rugs are really blankets, tourist consumers have found them warm and thick enough for rugs. The majority of these commercial rugs are in natural gray, white and black with touches of blue and red, in simple geometrical designs. Their flat, heavy textile is not only very long-wearing, but also effective in simple, masculine rooms of certain types. It is regrettable that the softer colors of earlier times are not in more frequent evidence nowadays. The Navajos were expert weavers, and numerous rugs survive which bear witness to a high degree of artistic perception and are richly endowed with taste and skill.
Just as the Navajo "rugs" were really blankets, so too, up to about 1800, people both Indian and non-Indian who spoke of rugs, oddly enough, did not refer to floor coverings. When the early records mentioned rugs, they were referring to any coarse heavy wool fabrics such as bed covers, chimney cloths, window-sill covers, or more likely table covers. Only if called a floor rug, or clearly described as for a bedside or floor, can one be sure that the rug in the inventory has our modern connotation.