Message #201:
From: AzTeC SW Archaeology SIG
To:   "'Matthias Giessler'" 
Subject: Navajo Germantown Samplers
Date: Wed, 28 May 1997 21:28:59 -0700

Navajo Germantown Samplers
Although Navajo textiles are some of the most well-known and documented
exaples of  Native American weavings, they have had a relatively recent
history. Spanish, Pubelo Indian, and Anglo contact has influenced the
development of this fine artform.

Traditionally basketweavers, the Navajo women may have been introduced
to more productive textile weaving techniques by Pueblo peoples, many of
whom fled to Navajo settlements in the late 1600s in fear of Spanish
reprisals for the Pueblo revolts. The Navajo knew about Pueblo and
Spanish weaving traditions for some time, either through raiding parties
or trading expeditions. Those Pueblo people who came to live with the
Navajo brought their tools, techniques, and their Spanish sheep, which
produced much finer weavings than did cotton or other fibers used

The right materials had a tremendous impact on the growth of Navajo
textile making. even today, the type of wool used in a weaving can be
the best indicator of the date that the piece was made.  Weavers were
involved in every step in the process of creating a textile, from
carding and spinning the wool to making the dyes. Wool was dyed with
natural materials, such as plants for yellow and green colors or ash and
pitch for black. The popular red hues were not made by the Navajo
themselves, but instead they used unraveled bayeta cloth or other trade
fabrics. These appropriated fibers usually had been colored with a red
insect-derived pigment called cochineal, taken from a type of parasite
that lives on prickly pear cactus. Indigo, which was imported, was also
bought for use to create blue tones. Often wool was left undyed, ranging
in color from beige to gray.

The Navajo used their weavings for their own people, but they saw that
their craft had a great trade potential. Because their weavings were so
tightly woven, they were sought by Anglo traders as bedding material and
by other Native Americans, from Pueblo people to Plains Indians, as
clothing or blankets. For this reason, Navajo weavers were always eager
to create designs and styles that would demand the best price. This
"commercial" sensibility would affect Navajo textile design dramatically
with the introduction of the traders and trading posts.

Beginning in 1863, U.S. Government intervention into traditional ways of
life kept the Navajo people in a dependent relationship with Anglos.
Moved from one reservation to another and encouraged to take up farming
rather than herding, the Navajo found themselves with few resources or
ways to earn a living in the white man's system. Government-endorsed and
private traders encouraged the Navajo to create traditional artforms for
sale tot he new breed of Western traveler, the tourist. In order to make
Navajo weavings more appealing to this new market of buyers, many of
whom were not       accustomed to the patterns and colors of Native
American arts, the traders drew patterns and set guidelines for the
weavers to follow. The traders also realized that the textiles would
sell better if they were made to be rugs rather than blankets. Thus the
traders introduced borders and even some patterns based on Oriental

The opening of the railroad in New Mexico and Arizona in 1880-1881
brought not only tourists but also commercially made goods to the
reservation trading posts. Traders introduced the Navajo to aniline
dyes, which allowed the weavers to color their own hand-spun wool yard
in bright, permanent colors. Traders also ordered commercially made
yarns, already dyed and spun and ready for use.

Some of the most widely used manufactured yarns came from Germantown,

Germantown yarns were more expensive than the handmade variety, and thus
the traders doled them out to only their best weavers. These yarns came
in bright greens, blues purples, reds and yellows, and their weight and
texture were lighter than the traditional wools. Soon the weavers began
experimenting with the colors and design possibilities of the new
material, creating brightly colored patterns called "eyedazzlers" by
those traders who thought they were somewhat garish.

Because many tourists could not afford large rugs or didn't have room in
their houses for them, the Navajo weavers began to make small
sampler-sized textiles. During the turn of the century, many of these
small weavings were made from the colorful Germantown yards and were
made by some of the best weavers, making them miniature masterpieces of
Navajo textile art. Often they were left on the miniature loom on which
they were started so that the tourist would have a complete display item
to illustrate the weaving process. These weavings were also appealing
because they did not take up much space in the travelers'' baggage.

Rather than miniature rug designs, many of these samplers contain
brightly colored individual motifs. 

One type of symbol used was the "whirling logs" pattern. This was an
ancient Native American good luck symbol, but unfortunately a similar
design was adopted by the Nazis as their swastika. When the Navajo
learned that a variation of their symbol was being used by an enemy of
peace half a world away, they stopped portraying the whirling logs.
Appearance of this symbol in Navajo art can help to date the piece as
being made before 1935.

Another design used in small weavings is that of the ye'ii figure. Ye'ii
are supernatural beings in the Navajo cosmology, and their depiction in
artwork for sale was controversial among the Navajo community.
"Ceremonial" weavings, those that portray ye'ii figures or sandpainting
designs, were considered by many Navajo to be disrespectful to the
supernaturals. Weavers who chose to ignore this taboo were warned that
they would go blind for committing such an act, and often they
participated in special cleansing ceremonies in an effort to avoid
divine retribution. Often weavings with ceremonial subjects were more
expensive due to the special care that the weaver need to take to      
make them. Nevertheless, they were popular with tourists who relished
their exotic nature.

Medicine Man Gallery is pleased to be currently displaying an unusually
large collection of Germantown samplers, most dating tot he late 1800s.
These pieces are excellent examples of the quality of work produced by
the best Navajo weavers at that time. Unique examples of pieces still on
their looms are shown, rare because the fragile looms usually do not
survive their hundred year age in such fine condition.