From sheep to blan­ket The weavers of Toadlena


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Casey Sanchez

HALF­WAY BE­TWEEN GALLUP AND SHIPROCK, on an iso­lated stretch of the Navajo Na­tion, a clus­ter of around 150 Diné weavers have main­tained a deeply tra­di­tional way of weaving. They raise their own sheep, spin their own yarn from the fleece, and weave in­tri­cately de­signed blan­kets whose earth-toned hues are de­rived en­tirely from the color of the sheep’s wool.

Known as the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills style of Navajo weaving, the blan­kets pro­duced by these weavers have de­vel­oped an in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ing since these crafters first de­vel­oped their unique form in the early 20th cen­tury. The blan­kets’ muted tones stand apart from the dra­matic reds and ochres that are the hall­marks of the more widely known Navajo blan­ket style. Plus, in our own era of es­teem­ing “farm to ta­ble” ar­ti­san­ship, the Toadlena process of “sheep to blan­ket” car­ries an au­then­tic­ity and per­haps even a ter­roir that is im­pos­si­ble to du­pli­cate.

“A lot of peo­ple buy Navajo rugs for their color and flash at first. But as they con­tinue col­lect­ing, they dis­cover the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills weaving,” said Toadlena Trad­ing Post owner and op­er­a­tor Mark Win­ter in an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo. “They end up be­ing their fa­vorite. The nat­u­ral col­ors and wools end up grow­ing on you.”

Since 1997, Win­ter, along with his wife Linda, have man­aged the Toadlena Trad­ing Post, which sits at the end of a long stretch of dirt road on the east­ern side of the Chuska Moun­tains. It still func­tions as a tra­di­tional trad­ing post. Win­ter buys rugs di­rectly from lo­cal weavers and sells them along­side ev­ery­thing from gro­ceries and propane to loans and postal mail ser­vice. But he is also a chron­i­cler and booster of Toadlena weaving cul­ture. Each year, he helps send weavers to Ja­pan to demon­strate their tech­niques abroad, and he has even writ­ten a book about the Navajo weavers of the re­gion.

Win­ter has cu­rated a se­lec­tion of Toadlena tex­tiles in an ex­hibit called Wo­ven in Beauty. Span­ning 100 years of weaving from the Two Grey Hills re­gion, the ex­hibit will ap­pear in two shows this week at El Museo Cul­tural de Santa Fe. The first, Objects of Art, runs from Fri­day, Aug. 12, through Sunday, Aug. 14, and the sec­ond, the An­tique Amer­i­can In­dian Art Show, takes place from Wed­nes­day, Aug. 17, through Fri­day, Aug. 19.

“The show is re­ally our at­tempt to pro­mote our weavers. This ex­hibit is go­ing to fea­ture about 50 or 60 mas­ter weavers, the best of the best over the last 100 years,” said Win­ter. “I’ve ar­ranged them in decades. The show has text la­bels that ex­plain ev­ery 10-year pe­riod of change in the weaving style and the weavers them­selves. You’ll no­tice the tex­tiles keep get­ting finer and finer — it’s a re­ally fun ex­hibit.”

Both shows will also fea­ture demon­stra­tions by con­tem­po­rary weavers fea­tured in the ex­hibit. “Vi­o­let Brown and her daugh­ter Thelma will be there do­ing weaving demon­stra­tions. They are Hashtl’ish­nii, Mud Clan, and come from one of the larger weaving fam­i­lies in the re­gion,” said Win­ter. “They will be demon­strat­ing the cardi­gan wool-spin­ning technique.”

Win­ter will also be on hand at the shows, ca­su­ally shar­ing his knowl­edge of Toadlena tex­tiles, tech­niques, and the tra­di­tions that var­i­ous weaving fam­i­lies have passed on from grand­mother to mother to daugh­ter. He has col­lected his learn­ing in a mas­sive 600-page tome called The Mas­ter Weavers: Cel­e­brat­ing 100 Years of Navajo Tex­tile Artists from the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills Weaving Re­gion (The His­toric Toadlena Trad­ing Post). Orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2011, the book is a com­pen­dium of color plates of rugs, ex­ten­sive his­to­ries of tech­niques and weaving fam­i­lies sourced from in­ter­views with weavers and lo­cal traders, and orig­i­nal re­search from his­toric archives and mu­se­ums through­out the coun­try.

“It took me 23 years to put this book to­gether. I wasn’t in a big hurry to pub­lish,” said Win­ter. “I look at the book as a gift to all of our young weavers. They are very proud of it. We give it to all of our mas­ter weavers and their fam­i­lies.” Weaving, Win­ter said, is in­tri­cately bound up with the his­tory of the Navajo peo­ple. The Toadlena style emerges from a col­lu­sion of the com­mu­nity’s iso­la­tion, mar­ket forces for tex­tiles, and the loss of thou­sands of herds of Navajo-Churro sheep.

While some his­to­ri­ans and an­thro­pol­o­gists trace Navajo weaving back to the ar­rival of the Diné in the South­west a thou­sand years ago, the first writ­ten records of their looms and tex­tiles come from colo­nial Spa­niards who en­tered Navajo coun­try in the early 18th cen­tury. “Their style is a com­bi­na­tion of Pue­blo technique, Span­ish sheep, and Navajo in­ge­nu­ity,” Win­ter said. Un­til the late 19th cen­tury, many Nava­jos wore the blan­kets as ser­apes even as traders mar­keted their tex­tiles to wealthy pa­trons on the East Coast as blan­kets. With the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864, when much of the tribe was forcibly de­ported and marched by the U.S. Army to Bosque Re­dondo, thou­sands of herds of Navajo-Churro sheep were culled by the army.

“With a lot of sheep de­stroyed, a lot of bright yarns were im­ported to the reser­va­tion,” said Win­ter. “That’s what the mar­ket then also wanted. The trader Lorenzo Hubbell would tell weavers, ‘Make it any color you want as long as it’s red.’ ”

But at the turn of the cen­tury, Vic­to­rian tastes had moved away from bright col­ors, cre­at­ing an open­ing for the Toadlena weavers, whose iso­la­tion had pre­served their herds as well as their tra­di­tional pref­er­ence for wool hues de­rived en­tirely from the color of the sheep.

“I bought the post 19 years ago with the ex­plicit goal of nur­tur­ing and pro­mot­ing Toadlena/Two Grey Hills weaving. It’s why we hold sum­mer classes show­ing the young peo­ple here how to weave and con­tinue the tra­di­tion,” said Win­ter. “We’ve had such a rep­u­ta­tion for hav­ing the finest Navajo weavers. Even though we are at the end of a dirt road in an iso­lated part of the Na­tion, peo­ple come and see us from all over the world to see and buy the rugs. There’s no work­man­ship to com­pare it to. A weaver can spend up to four months just mak­ing the wool for the rug. Imag­ine a painter who had to spend four months prep­ping his paint and mak­ing his can­vas from scratch.”

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