The Case for Labor in Art: The Navajo Rug


Traditional Navajo rug, c. 1900; Taylor Collection, Hastings, Eng. Richard Erdoes — Alpha/Globe Photos

The weavings known around the world as Navajo Rugs are traditional textiles made with a great deal of reverence for the labor intensive practices and traditional methods of making. The methods and materials are a celebration of culture and heritage, with a reverence for place and work that is reflected in every Navajo rug.

This intricate art form is tied to the place and the lifestyle of the people who make the rugs. The Navajo’s traditional homeland, Dinetah, is within the Four Sacred Mountains, located within modern New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah in the area known as the Four Corners. This homeland, with native minerals, colors, plants, and agricultural practices, is the soul of the Navajo rug

The land supports sheep ranching, and the wool from the sheep is sheared using traditional hand-shears. The wool is combed using hand-cards, then spun on a spindle. The Navajo spindle is also known as a thigh spindle, and has a wooden balancing whorl nearly exactly the size of the top of a round cardboard container of Quaker Oats. Spindles are cut from straight tree branches and whittled and sanded until smooth. A hole is cut in the whorl, and it is placed on the spindle shaft and sanded until it is balanced and even when spun against the leg.

Once the wool is carded and spun, dyestuffs are collected. Natural alum collects in the arroyos during dry seasons. It is used as a dye mordant. Native plants like wild carrot, lichen and moss, leaves and tree bark, and cactus fruit are collected and prepared. Different colors are obtained by preparing dyes in different buckets and pots — iron, copper, and tin give additional colors and mordants to the dyes. The spun wool is dyed and dried; at this point, a weaver has an idea of the design of her rug, and she prepares the materials needed to complete the project. Natural dyes can’t be replicated exactly, so the materials must be prepared together.

While the wool is being dyed, the loom is being built. Traditionally set up outside, with two stout trees as the vertical uprights, the sheds and battens are carved and sanded until smooth. Looms can be remade for each rug, with tools and equipment sized to the project. Many modern weavers have both inside and outside looms.

A second spinning makes the tight, strong warp thread, and the plied end cords are made. The rug is warped, a time-consuming and tedious process, and the warp is attached to the loom. This is the point the weaving starts.

But the rug starts long before the weaving; when a weaver is raising the sheep, carding wool, spinning, collecting dyes, she is thinking about her rugs. She is planning, dreaming of design and color combinations that will make her rug a joy for generations, a form of balance and harmony and beauty, a worthy gift to Spider-Woman, who taught the Navajo to weave. By the time the preparatory work is completed, and the weaving is ready to begin, she has dreamed a hundred rugs.

The making of these traditional textiles is a slow process. Large rugs, from shearing the sheep to untying the finished rug from the loom, can take a year to make. But if the rug needs a year, it needs a year. It is a piece of art unique to that time, in that place, made by these animals and plants, and worked with tools made by hand. It has a history, and a heart, and a soul that reflects the care of its making.