From sheep to blanket The weavers of Toadlena
THE WEAVERS OF TOADLENA
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.”