A TIME OF CHANGE

Navajo tran­si­tional blan­kets are show­cased at Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery.

Native American Art - - GALLERY PREVIEWS - by Mark Sublette

Tran­si­tional weav­ings, circa 1885 to 1910, rep­re­sent an un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated class of Navajo tex­tiles of­ten over­looked as be­ing made dur­ing a less im­por­tant time of Navajo weav­ing. Un­til re­cently, what has not been rec­og­nized is the in­cred­i­ble artis­tic ex­plo­ration that oc­curred dur­ing this time forced by eco­nomic pres­sures on Navajo weavers to stop mak­ing blan­kets for wear and shift to pro­duc­ing floor rugs.

This snip­pet in his­tory al­lowed weavers greater free­dom to ex­plore new com­po­si­tions and col­ors they never imag­ined—a sig­nif­i­cant change for Navajo artis­tic ex­pres­sion. The story of how the Navajo tran­si­tioned to this unique artis­tic ex­plo­ration be­gins in the 1860s. The Nava­jos, who had been weav­ing de­signs for gen­er­a­tions, were de­fined by the style of the ser­apes and chief’s blan­kets they cre­ated. These weav­ings used sim­ple stripes, rec­tan­gles, squares, tri­an­gles and chevrons for their main fo­cal de­signs. While the weav­ings were exquisitely wo­ven and de­signed, the mo­tifs were of­ten sim­i­lar in com­po­si­tion.

In 1864, the Navajo were rounded up by Kit Car­son, at the be­hest of Gen. Wil­liam Te­cum­seh Sher­man, to help solve “the In­dian prob­lem.” De­stroy­ing the Nava­jos’ hogans, sheep and or­chards, the Diné, as they re­fer to them­selves, were starved into sub­mis­sion.

Af­ter sur­ren­der­ing to the United States Cal­vary in March of 1864, groups of Nava­jos were forced to march 300 miles to Bosque Re­dondo. Eight thou­sand Nava­jos, be­tween 1864 and 1868, were held cap­tive. The failed pri­son en­cul­tur­a­tion in east­ern New Mex­ico fi­nally ended, and the Navajo were re­leased to re­turn to Diné­tah (their tra­di­tional Navajo home­land). As part of the re­lease agree­ment, the gov­ern­ment added stip­u­la­tions man­dat­ing Navajo chil­dren to at­tend An­glo board­ing schools for in­doc­tri­na­tion into the so-called Amer­i­can cul­ture, re­quired the Navajo to stay on their reser­va­tion lands in New Mex­ico and Ari­zona, and de­manded there would be no raid­ing on sur­round­ing towns. Trad­ing posts popped up around the newly formed reser­va­tions, in­clud­ing one run by John

Lorenzo Hubbell in 1878, and these posts changed the way the Navajo looked at tex­tile pro­duc­tion.

The traders at the var­i­ous posts en­cour­aged the weavers to stop weav­ing blan­kets and start mak­ing rugs. This change did not oc­cur overnight but was a grad­ual process over many decades. The Navajo weavers re­sponded to the eco­nomic stim­u­lus the trad­ing post own­ers en­cour­aged.

Some of the trad­ing posts started to pay weavers by the weight of the weav­ing in­stead of the qual­ity or de­sign of the tex­tile. Many weav­ings pro­duced dur­ing this time frame were loosely wo­ven to in­crease weight and hence value. These heav­ier blan­kets were called “pound blan­kets.” The traders fig­ured out very quickly that pay­ing for weav­ings in this man­ner de­creased blan­ket qual­ity even­tu­ally caus­ing them to aban­don this prac­tice.

The 1890s saw great change in the type of blan­ket pro­duced. The price of raw wool plum­meted in 1893 dur­ing the world­wide de­pres­sion last­ing four years. This added pres­sure on trad­ing posts to of­fer a va­ri­ety of weav­ings be­sides blan­kets to keep rev­enues up.

The de­vel­op­ment of eye daz­zler de­signs wo­ven with com­mer­cial yarn, known as Ger­man­town blan­kets, were named for the Penn­syl­va­nian mills that man­u­fac­tured the four-ply yarn. These tightly wo­ven weav­ings, which of­ten used cot­ton warp, did not hold up well on the floor and soon lost fa­vor as floor rugs.

Ger­man­towns have al­ways had col­lectabil­ity as wall art, even if it was a short pro­duc­tion of around

15 years, with most made in the 1890s time frame. The 1960s New York Op Art artists grav­i­tated to these “eye­daz­zler” weav­ings for their col­lec­tions; this brought recog­ni­tion to these spe­cial­ized types of tran­si­tional blan­kets. In De­cem­ber 2017, an eye­daz­zler de­signed Ger­man­town blan­ket fetched $50,000 at auc­tion. Usu­ally, an ex­cel­lent GT (a term coined in the trade) can be found for un­der $10,000, smaller pieces around $2,500 or less, and sam­plers bring­ing as lit­tle as a few hun­dred dol­lars.

An­other un­usual blan­ket pro­duced from circa 1870 to 1910 is the wedge weave; the ma­jor­ity of these were made in the 1880 to 1890s. They use an ec­cen­tric weave creat­ing a scal­loped de­sign at the sel­vage and zigzag mo­tifs in the in­te­rior. The un­usual, pulled-warp tech­nique did not hold up well struc­turally and never be­came a main­stay in blan­ket pro­duc­tion. Col­lec­tors look for these rare pieces wo­ven dur­ing the tran­si­tional pe­riod. This ex­per­i­men­tal wedge weave de­sign has been re­pro­duced re­cently by 22-year-old con­tem­po­rary Navajo weaver Kevin As­paas, and won first place and Best of Cat­e­gory at the Gallup-tribal In­dian Cer­e­mo­nial.

Many of the tex­tiles wo­ven dur­ing the tran­si­tional pe­riod are true blan­kets made for trade and sel­f­use and are of­ten re­ferred to as Diyugi blan­kets by col­lec­tors. These weav­ings char­ac­ter­ized by a loose weave and repet­i­tive pat­terns of de­sign or stripes—be­sides nat­u­ral whites and browns—of­ten in­cor­po­rate red, orange and blue col­ors us­ing ani­line dyes. Oc­ca­sion­ally in­digo blue ap­pears in tran­si­tional pieces from 1880; the color in­digo how­ever is most of­ten found in 1870 and ear­lier weav­ings.

In­digo dyed pieces do not fade, and an ex­cel­lent gross di­ag­nos­tic test to de­ter­mine the ori­gin of the dye is to spread the yarn fiber apart and look for any color change or fad­ing in the cen­ter com­pared to the out­side yarn. If there is any color change or fad­ing, then this is not in­digo and helps to date the tex­tile as

prob­a­bly be­ing later than 1880.

The wool com­po­si­tion in tran­si­tional weav­ings is a hand­spun soft churro yarn whose long sta­ple gives the pieces a soft pleas­ing tex­ture to touch. If the tex­tile feels like what you would ex­pect from a blan­ket when rubbed against your skin it prob­a­bly is just that— a blan­ket. The Ger­man­town com­mer­cially made wool, pro­duced in the late 19th cen­tury, has a coarse feel and is a plied, even yarn, not hand­spun.

Tran­si­tional blan­kets are still avail­able, though quickly dry­ing up in the sec­ondary mar­ket, as orig­i­nal fam­i­lies that col­lected the pieces pass away and the tex­tiles are sold. They are still af­ford­able and of­ten can be found for $2,500 or less. Ex­am­ples with small amounts of rav­eled yarn, in­digo or tight weft count can bring closer to $10,000 for a good ex­am­ple.

Some of the most ex­cit­ing weav­ings are tran­si­tional blan­kets in­cor­po­rat­ing sim­ple de­sign el­e­ments such as boxes, tri­an­gles or multi-sided poly­gons. The weavers who were be­ing en­cour­aged to pro­duce rugs in­stead of blan­kets were al­lowed the artis­tic free­dom of ex­plo­ration. With lit­tle or no guide­lines as to what con­sti­tutes a rug, other than a bor­der around the edge, cre­ativ­ity gave way to unique de­signs that ap­pealed to the weaver’s sense of what was beau­ti­ful. These weav­ings do not fit into any clas­si­fi­ca­tion other than to call them tran­si­tional blan­kets with a modern aes­thetic. Homage to the Square, a re­cent book on this very sub­ject, dis­plays ex­am­ples of unique weav­ings from this tran­si­tional pe­riod.

Tran­si­tional blan­kets are un­der­val­ued for what they truly rep­re­sent; wear­ing blan­kets made by a cul­ture prized for their weav­ing abil­i­ties. First phase Navajo blan­kets made 50 years ear­lier can bring a mil­lion dol­lars for a great ex­am­ple and un­doubt­edly some of these weavers, or their chil­dren, also pro­duced tran­si­tional blan­kets. De­spite be­ing in­flu­enced by dif­fer­ent eco­nomic pres­sures and chang­ing tastes, the artistry of the tran­si­tional blan­ket comes from the same bril­liant cre­ative process the early Navajo used to cre­ate rare wear­ing blan­kets.

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1. 2. Navajo tran­si­tional blan­ket, ca. 1890, 74 x 42"

Se­cond phase Navajo chief’s blan­ket with in­digo and cochineal dyes and rav­eled bayeta, ca. 1850-60, 50½ x 59" 2

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3. 4. 5. 6. Navajo tran­si­tional wedge weave blan­ket, ca. 1875-85, 79½ x 55½"

Navajo Ger­man­town eye­daz­zler weav­ing, ca. 1890, 37 x 26"

Navajo tran­si­tional blan­ket, ca. 1890, 49 x 40"

Navajo tran­si­tional blan­ket, ca. 1890, 82 x 55" 5 6

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