History: Navajo Rugs

 *** 46th Anniversary 1969-2015 of our American Indian Art Gallery now located in Aliso Viejo, California ***

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Len Wood's
Indian Territory, Inc.

Jeff Wood, President
The Nation's largest

selection of Navajo Rugs, Indian Baskets and Antique

American Indian Art


Len Wood's

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Aliso Viejo, CA 92656

phone: (949) 497-5747 
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A Brief History of Navajo Blankets & Rugs

 In the 16th century, when the Spanish arrived and subsequently conquered the peaceful pueblo Indian cultures of what is now New Mexico and the American Southwest, the Navajo or Dine peoples which then lived north of the pueblos were seldom if ever seen by the Spanish and known mostly through the Pueblo Indian stories and encounters (often stories of raids by the Navajo on the pueblos) related by the Pueblo tribes.

The Navajo--who may have come together as an amalgamation of several tribal and clan cultures of the Southern Plains to form their own distinctive culture less than one hundred years before the Spanish Conquest-- are linguistic relatives (Athapascan) of the Apache and are generally considered to have had, in the16th century, a culture more similar to Plains nomadic hunter-raiders than to the Pueblo sedentary-agrarian cultures.

The Pueblo tribes grew cotton and wove blankets and garments on a distinctive pueblo loom hundreds of years before the Spanish arrived (these weaving skills perhaps brought up by Indians from what is now Mexico and Central America), yet it was the Spanish who first introduced sheep to the Southwest.
   The earliest sheep brought to the Southwest by the Spanish was the churro, a small sheep with very long silky, smooth stapled wool perfect for weaving and in a variety of natural shades: dark brown, tan and cream. Rarely used today, despite many breeding attempts, the churro's few modern descendants seem to lack in their wool the length and silkiness, sheen and feel that distinguish the pre-1900 breed. (Photo: modern, shorter wool "churro")

Upheaval of the Pueblos

Harsh persecution of pueblo peoples and the destruction of traditional pueblo culture by the Spanish led to the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. It was during this turbulent period and Diego de Vargas 1692 Re-Conquest that Pueblo Indians escaping retaliation for the rebellion lived among the Navajos and introduced both sheep and weaving technology to the Navajo to a degree such that written records among certain Spanish documentation , covering a period from 1706-1743, records the Navajo keeping sheep and weaving wool blankets during that period.

Pueblo manta, late 19th century

The earliest known surviving examples of Navajo blankets are but fragments dating from the 1805 Massacre Cave site near Chinle, Arizona and Canyon de Chelly. At this site more than one hundred elderly men, women and children were slaughtered by Spanish slave traders. The fragments show simple, conservative Pueblo Indian-influenced designs of narrow banding in alternating colors of natural sheep wool tones (white, grey, brown, tan, black) and some vegetal dyes (mostly shades of rust, yellow and green). Indigo blue dyed wool yarn was also found among the fragments. Indigo was obtained by the Navajo from Mexican pony caravans coming up from Mexico City.


Mexican Indigo-dyed Saltillo Serape, c. 1875

The oldest Navajo weavings available to the collector's market can sometimes be dated back to the 1870's or 1860's to a time of transference out of Navajo hands. How old a weaving may have been at time of transfer and beginning of a recorded history is usually unknown. Weavings dated earlier than this time are usually estimated based on style, dyes and ravelled materials used and compared and contrasted with known dated weavings and their dates often broadly estimated (eg. "1800-1860" or "pre-1860") as more specific dating may be impossible at present time.

Navajo Blanket & Rug Periods


  • Classic Period (1700-1850)
  • Late Classic Period (1850-1868)
  • Transition Period (1868-1890)
  • Rug Period (1890-1930)
  • Regional Style Period (1930-Today)


Other important dates include:

  • Chemical (Aniline) dyes invented in England (1856)
  • Aniline dyes transported to Southwest by Santa Fe RR (1865)
  • Three ply dyed yarn transported to SW from Germantown, Pennsylvania textile mills by Santa Fe RR (1865 approx.)
  • Four ply dyed "Germantown" yarn (by 1875)




The collectibility of rare and early Navajo Blankets has long attracted the wealthy and celebrated collector from William Randolph Hearst --who over a period of a decade or so before 1920 collected more than 200 important 19th century Navajo blankets-- to the leading actors, filmmakers, recording artists , politicians and business tycoons of today who seek similar items.

Today, anyone who has an interest in decorating their home or office in historic weavings can find examples to fit every budget and every display purpose.


Chief's Blankets


Prior to the trading post era when the Navajo learned to make rugs for the American resale trade, the Navajo wove only blankets -- both for themselves and for trade with the Spanish and with other Native American Indian tribal cultures.

Blankets were woven in several sizes but three major forms: serape (a shoulder blanket that is woven longer than wide), saddle blanket (in single form a squarish small weave or in double saddleblanket form to be folded in half under the saddle for extra cushioning), and in chief's blanket form.

A chief's blanket is a shoulder blanket woven on the loom wider than it is long -- the ONLY Navajo weaving to be woven this way--(even later Navajo yei rugs , made to be displayed hoizontally, were woven vertically on the loom)-- and the design often joining up to form an enclosed pattern when properly worn wrapped around the body as a shawl and usually held in place with the hands or with a pin of some form.

Serapes continued to be made throughout all of the 19th century as well.


Navajo shoulder blanket forms: chief's vs. serape

Left: A Germantown Chief's Blanket of Third Phase Pattern

Right: A Homespun Transitional Blanket, Serape form.

 Any shoulder blanket woven (when on the loom) longer than wide is a shoulder blanket form referred to as a serape. Note that while the serape is worn on the shoulders horizontally as shown in photo, it is woven on the loom vertically, unlike the chief's. Many Navajo blanket collectors prefer to display shoulder blankets as they would have been on the loom, so if not displayed on a mannequin, serapes are usually displayed vertically.

To determine how the blanket was woven on the loom , look at the direction of the warp cords (the interior "skeleton" of the blanket) which will appear as tiny continuous ridges on the exterior of the blanket for the entire length of the blanket.


"Chief's blanket" is something of a misnomer as the Navajo did not have "chiefs" within their social structure. The term came to be used because only a relatively wealthy person (such as a chief in a Plains Indian tribe or the Utes who especially liked and traded for these weavings) could afford the extravagance and cost of these beautiful weavings.


Phase 1 --Pre-1850

"First Phase" or "Ute -style" blankets of the pre-1850 "Classic" Period were simple banded chief's blankets with broad horizontal bands of natural dark brown/black alternating with broad bands of creamy white churro sheep wool yarn, often with narrow or broad bands of indigo-blue dyed yarn and sometimes red bands obtained from ravelled yarn (the unravelled and re-twisted threads obtained from bolts of trade cloth, especially the cochineal insect red-dyed English baize trade cloth, known by the Spanish as bayetta.)

 Phase 2 -- 1850-1860

Second phase chief's blankets of the "Late Classic" Period . Smaller design elements, often small rectangular elements were placed within one each of the top, middle and bottom horizontal bands , often in a twelve-position layout. The effect was that the new elements were being placed "on top of" the traditional Phase One motif, with the First Phase blanket now a "background".

Phase 3 -- 1860-1868

The new elements now expanded beyond the bands, and were laid out in a "nine -spot" design with three elements each across the top, middle and bottom of the old Phase One pattern. The new elements could be squares, rectangles or diamonds, and in some later interpretations --especially during the Transition Period-- became so large that the original Phase One pattern of bands can barely be discerned. Some of these latter interpretations are sometimes referred to as "Chief's Variants."

Chief's Blankets of the Transition Period (1868-1890)

Chief's Blankets, especially in the Third Phase form most desired by collectors of that time, continued to be made past the Late Classic Period and into the Transition Period. The major differences being the substitution of aniline-dyed yarn for ravelled yarn, and the decrease in the use of indigo dye, being replaced by aniline purple-blue dye. While not as rare nor as costly as Late Classic period weavings, Transition Period Weavings -- whether in homespun yarn or Germantown trade yarn-- (today regularly sold at a fraction of the price of Classics), offer weavings over one hundred years old that capture much of the beauty of the earlier weaves and often greater complexity in both color and motif and often were woven by women who would have also been weaving during the Classic period.

"Chief's - Style" Rugs after 1890

The "Chief's Pattern", especially the Second and Third Phase pattern, continued to be used after the Transition period and is even found in modern "Revivals". These heavier pieces, more rug than blanket, each reflect the time period in which they are made. Third Phase Chief's rugs made prior to 1930 can in some instances maintain many of the blanket-like characteristics of the earlier weaves and can sometimes be quite sought after and collectible, often priced similarly to the best regional style rugs of the same size and period.

After 1930, however, there is little intrinsic value to a rug having a "Chief's -influenced" pattern or design.



Navajo Germantown Chief's Blanket, Circa 1880. Third Ph green, dark purple, purple-blue.



Germantown yarn was imported by Santa Fe Railroad during a brief period at the end of the 19th century by early Navajo traders.

The colorful wool yarn was manufactured at the Germantown, Pennsylvania textile mills. It was a very tightly spun three ply (very rare 1865-1875) or four ply (1875-1895) yarn in a variety of bright colors produced from commercial aniline dyes.

 (*click for large image)

Navajo Germantown Trade Yarn Child's Blanket, circa 1890.  "Eyedazzler" style.

It was costly and less profitable for Navajo weavers to work with this yarn and often only the best weavers made the investment.

Relatively few Germantowns were woven, and large examples--over sampler size--are comparatively scarce. Unpopular in their own day as they were not sturdy enough to be used as floor rugs, nor warm enough to be a good blanket, Germantowns became very popular as wall hangings soon after they were no longer being made and have increased in popularity over the decades.

They are known for their unusually bright colors and intricate patterns which can create a variety of optical effects , especially in complex designs known as "eyedazzlers." Today they rank among the most popular and collectible of antique Navajo weavings.





 The diamond motif was the second "major" design element used with a very high degree of regularity by the Navajo in their weavings. (The first major element was the band -- which in both narrow or wide form was adapted from the Pueblo Indians who used the simple design on virtually all their early weavings. The Pueblo Indian men are believed to have taught the Navajo women to weave when both cultures were under the subjugation of Spanish rule in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries.)

The diamond motif was probably adapted from the diamond which was often used in the middle of the early Mexican saltillo serape. The Navajo and Mexican cultures both traded with each other and went on raids against each other; however Mexican weavers used a horizontal, open warp loom and Navajo used a vertical closed warp/continuous warp loom and so their weavings are easily distinguished from each other, especially by the cut off warpcords that form a fringe on Spanish loom weavings.


 Navajo Regional Rugs

As some trading post operators such as J.B. Moore became successful selling rugs by "mail order catalog" to East Coast clientele,and as the Santa Fe Railroad began to bring Easterners to the Southwest , demand for Navajo weavings greatly increased, and more intricate weavings were made and in a heavier weave for floor use. (The Navajo did not use floor rugs as they had clay floors in their hogans.) The concept of borders appears to have been introduced by trading post operators during the 1890's as early simple prototype borders appear then and gradually becoming more complex as they continue into the 1920's.


Hand-Carded Yarn

The early Navajo rugs of the 1890-1930 differ markedly from most of the weavings that came later. Wool quality was good, smooth and silky --especially in the 1910-1920's era-- although the actual quality could vary depending on the genetic qualities of the sheep, and the actual degree of skill and effort employed by the weaver in cleaning ,combing and carding, spinning, dying and weaving the homespun single ply yarn.

Rugs of this period are distinctive in the variegation of color that is usually found within the grey field back ground that many rugs utilized. The grey was achieved by carding together--in varying proportions--natural homespun dark brown sheep wool, natural cream color and sometimes natural tan color sheep. The resulting "streaking" effect sometimes gives the appearance of stratified sedimentary rock, heat waves rising off the ground, or a sense of undulating motion that contracts sharply with modern rugs which may employ either grey dyes or commercial yarn to create a "uniform " and "static" grey, which is sometimes preferred by some individuals for specific home decorative effects or as a matter of personal preference.


Hand-dyed Yarn

Early Navajo weavings included hand-dyed yarn--most of the dyes not vegetal as many people assume, but rather from dye cakes and packets imported to the trading posts via Santa Fe Railroad.

Hand-dying can produce different shades of color, especially in the reds, and many early weavers would either card or alternate lighter and darker dyed yarn to create a visual effect that is reminiscent of the Painted Desert, and the famous red sedimentary rock formations of the Southwest.


Examples of Regional Styles


Two Grey Hills and Naturals (Combination of any of following colors: Dark brown, carded grey, cream white, tan, black, similar neutral shades).


Toadlenas (small amount of color in this regional variant, otherwise it is a Two Grey Hills-style fine natural). (Note: Some Two Grey Hills contain blue; many collectors feel the terms Two Grey Hills and Toadlena are identical in meaning.)


 Ganados (often distinguished by use of red field, large central lozenge, crosses and bold designs). JL Hubbell supported dying techniques among the weavers within his trading post's influence that resulted in deeper red and mroe burgundy colored red in weavings and became the predominant color for the Ganado Red rug.

and Klagatohs (adjacent to Ganado and stylistically similar but lesser amount of red yarn than Ganados--with predominat colors used grey or white)


 Teec Nos Pos Intricate designs (often Persian rug -influenced) often with bold ornate borders and complex patterns throughout.

Red Mesa Outline Rugs -- Sub-variant of Teec Nos Pos featuring contrasting color fine outlining of major motif elements


 J.B.Moore Crystal Plate Rugs and other early or traditional Crystal Rugs. Includes the 31 non "Plate" rugs for which their is surviving documentation from the 1903 and 1911 JB Moore catalogs that allowed for mail order
   Classic Revivals ( early, mid and late 20th c. banded rugs that copy or "revive" the earliest known banded style of the Navajo and Pueblo weavings made before 1860). Includes Chinle, Crystal, Wide Ruins.
   Shiprock (most yei weavings)
  Western Reservation,  Burntwater, New Lands & other modern styles

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