World of Weavers

This part of the United States is famous for its Native American weavers though they are no longer touting their wares by setting up their looms beside the road — an image I remember vividly from my childhood when highways were two lanes and there was no fast-food or interstates. It was a very lovely thing to see, a Navajo woman dressed in velvet, sitting on a blanket, her loom in front of her, and baskets of spun wool beside her.

“What’s she doing, Mom?”

“Attracting tourists.”

My mom may have been a little cynical…

The first time I visited this region as an adult was on a “vacation” with the first ex in the early 70s. We stayed in Santa Fe and wandered through all the small towns we could reach in Northern New Mexico, Chimayo, Picuris, Española – all places within reach of car for me now. I loved them. They fascinated me and the music of their names and the mystery of their stories found a permanent place in my heart.

Everything now is fancier. The dust and mystery has naturally been replaced by websites and galleries. Native-American weaving isn’t something you find in the houses of people who live along what is now the I-25 corridor, it’s everywhere.

Here is a couple of videos — the first is Navajo weavers, the second is Tewa weavers. Weaving is a major art form among all these tribes. Their weaving is sometimes purely decorative but usually it contains motifs that have a meaning beyond decoration.

They may or may not use commercial yarn, but historically, the process of weaving a blanket began with taking the wool from the sheep, cleaning it, carding it and spinning it on a hand spindle. Spinning thread (yes) or yarn on a hand spindle? Yeah, I read about it as a kid learning about settling the frontier, but until I saw someone do it I didn’t realize that, historically, people have spent major parts of their lives with a hand spindle and a wad of wool. From that comes a blanket. Seriously. Think about that. Here’s the best video, but you have to watch it on Youtube, so copy and paste the link

20 thoughts on “World of Weavers

  1. Weaving is so connected to life, to culture, came from a necessity to protect us from the elements, and through it history is passed on and identity built–one of the many things all cultures have throughout all the world! Great videos, but the last one is inaccessible.

        • I know so little about the weaving. I’ve just lived around it. I’m so happy that people have videoed some of these old weavers. It’s very special.

            • I have friends here who do everything from getting the wool from their own sheep or alpacas, spinning it and weaving it. I think it must be very cool and satisfying to do that. I learned about the drop spindle from a friend here. Then I saw a painting of a sheep herder, boy, who was doing his work with the sheep and spinning wool at the same time. I’m seriously humbled by the whole process of making those fine fine fine filaments by hand and ending up with cloth. I don’t think it will ever be something I do, but I really honor it.

            • It is pretty special, and I would imagine very satisfying to start right from the beginning. A friend of mine’s mother has alpaca’s and I’m weaving with that wool right now. I love knowing it is local!

  2. When I came to California in the late 70s, I drove out at the tail end of the “dust and mystery” era. I-40 was not completed yet. There were still sections of 4-lane blacktop connecting the interstate. I followed old Route 66 as much as I could but sections had simply been incorporated into the freeway and no longer existed.

    I remember sharing a meager meal of bread, cheese, and canned clam chowder with some Native American boys in Canyon de Chelley. It was what I had. The boys got many of their meals by begging for food.

    All I owned in the world was some cheap camping gear, a 15-year-old rusted-out car, the gas in the tank, a grocery bag of food, and a couple hundred dollars but I was still affluent compared to these locals. Has the standard of living of these Native Americans along its way improved relative to the rest of the country since then? Not everyone is raking it in from casino revenue. Did the shift to galleries and then online sales help any? If their standard of living increased, did it happen in a way that boosted their pride or encouraged their dependency?

    I don’t know. We’re renting a room to a young “50%” Native American who isn’t even sure which tribe he belongs to. He just knows he gets a regular check from a casino up north.

    • Reservations are still comparatively poor out here. There are casinos and they make money. My perception of the various tribes is that, as always, they are confused about who they want to be in the modern world. Many are rediscovering their heritage, but how authentic that is, I don’t know. I’ve always liked Indians and been lucky to have spent a lot of time just hanging out. The tragedy at the moment is that COVID-19 has run rampant through some reservations down here and the modern world has largely forgotten about those people.

      It’s really hard for me to think about Indians clearly. I lack the ability to embrace revisionist sentimentality and rage. Too many personal experiences with too many people from too many tribes, I guess. One Kumeyyaay chief said to me once, when I’d jokingly made disparaging comments about a Swiss friend, “I don’t think you are a person to dislike anyone, Martha. All people are people.” The fact is I didn’t dislike the Swiss guy. I was amused at the Swiss way of wanting to “fix” America on a Swiss model. But my Kumeyyaay friend took my words seriously. Strangely, the moment had a big impact on me. Even after I’d explained it to him and he understood, I realized I was doing what the Swiss friend was doing. Anyway, it’s a multi-colored blanket.

  3. when I worked in private veterinary practice, we had a groomer on staff. There was a woman who would come to get the dog hair that we brushed out of the huskies and the other thick/double coated breeds. She would spin it into yarn and then knit and crochet hats and such… i could never afford to purchase any of her stuff – it was too pricy even though she got her materials for free! I loved the videos – especially listening to the woman in the first one speak her language…

    • I follow the Livestock Guardian Dog page on Facebook. A weaver posted recently that she would like people to send her their dog hair after they brush their LGDs. I get quite a bit from Bear but nothing like I got from my huskies.

      I think Navajo is beautiful. I even like the accent when Navajo native speakers speak English. I love that my guardian mountain here is one of their sacred mountains.

  4. Fascinating post, Martha. The art of spinning into yarn and then into blankets is truly magical in a way. Thanks for sharing those videos too. So many stories….

  5. I remember seeing artisans sitting by the side of the road with their turquoise and silver spread out on beautiful blankets. I bet that doesn’t happen any more!

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