The artisan who wove this beautiful sarape sometime between 1840 and 1860, in the so-called Classic Period of Navajo weaving, would have been shocked by the price it recently brought at auction: $93,500. She probably wouldn’t have been surprised, though, that it ended up on the block. Art and commerce have been densely interwoven through the long history of Navajo textiles. That this piece brought such a stiff price only confirms the high standing of Navajo weaving in the history of American decorative arts.
The Navajos learned weaving from their Southwestern neighbors the Pueblos sometime in the mid-seventeenth century. There were obvious similarities between the Pueblo and the Navajo ways of weaving. For both peoples woven objects were, first of all, supremely functional; blankets might be used for wearing, sitting upon, or hanging across the entries of dwellings. And for both peoples weaving itself was a quiet act of faith—a link to the past. (Of course, the distinction between how something is used and what it signifies spiritually is more Western European than Native American. We may look at the basic horizontal patterns of early Southwestern weaving, see in them echoes of the flat Southwestern landscape, and conclude that Indian weavers chose these patterns as an homage to the earth. This fails to take into account the Indian notion that the people and the earth were inextricably bound together. The question isn’t why the Navajos chose to weave these patterns. The question is, How could they possibly have chosen to weave anything else?)
The Pueblos having given them the technique, the Navajos quickly established their own style. In the Pueblo tradition it had generally been men who had done the weaving; among the Navajos the task was usually taken up by women. A Pueblo man would weave up from the bottom, invert the piece, and continue; a Navajo woman would weave straight across, joining vertical sections along a characteristic diagonal called the lazy line. Navajo weavers also added the “spirit trail” or “weaver’s pathway”—a line running off the edge of the piece that allowed the spirit of the weaver to escape so that she could go on to another.
The Navajos were shrewd traders with a strong commercial sense, and by 1700 they were selling blankets to surrounding Indian groups and to Spanish settlers. By the nineteenth century commerce was well established. The sarape shown on the opposite page is a lovely example of a man’s wearing blanket from this period. Dr. Joe Ben Wheat of the University of Colorado has noted that its three colors—indigo blue, white, and crimson—were the three paramount colors of Classic Period weaving. A configuration of the large central diamonds was typical of the later Classic Period. Navajo textiles are notable for their technical perfection, and Dr. Wheat has said that this sarape and others like it reflect “the finest level of achievement in Navajo weaving.”
The Navajos’ commercial bent led them into a natural alliance with white traders in the 1870s. To a large degree the traders determined what would sell in the East Coast and California markets. One, Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, hung watercolors of his favorite patterns on the wall of his Arizona trading post for artisans to copy. Outside influences impinged even further when the railroad came through the Southwest. Literal pictorial designs became fashionable in the 1880s; horses, cows, and the train itself were common figures. But the Navajos never slavishly copied anyone’s pattern, and for every collector who claims that quality declined in the 1880s and 1890s there is another to point out examples of magnificent work from the period.
By the early twentieth century fine examples of early Navajo textiles were selling to collectors for as much as five hundred dollars, and authors like U. S. Hollister and George Wharton James were arguing that Native American crafts were worthy of consideration as true American arts. The first formal exhibition of Native American art, the traveling Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts, was assembled by John Sloan and Oliver La Farge in 1931. The curator Frederic Douglas’s huge San Francisco show of 1939 traveled cross-country the next year and was re-created at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This gave an ancient art the imprimatur of modernism—one of those paradoxes that underlie the aesthetics of our age.
Weaving continues to be a viable craft and a viable business, taught today in Navajo schools. There will surely always be a demand for Navajo textiles. A 1973 survey by the Navajo Studies Department of Navajo Community College in Many Farms, Arizona, undertook to determine the time involved in creating a textile, from sheep shearing to marketing. Out of a total 345 hours, it took 24 hours to spin the wool, 60 hours to prepare the dye and dye the wool, 215 hours to weave the piece—and one hour to sell it.