Patches From the Past
Native American Weaving History

Navajo Weaving From 1862 to the Present

~ rug making history including the long walk & the trading post era ~

Go to Navajo Weaving From Spider Women to Chief's Blankets for the first article in this series.


These marvelous years of creativity in making exquisite textiles were soon to come to a jarring halt. Raids had still been going on between the Mexican people and the Navajo. When new Mexico and Arizona were annexed by the US in 1848 treaties to stop the raiding were attempted and continuously broken by both sides. The Mexicans had been conducting so many slave raids in Navajo country that by 1860 most New Mexican families owned one or more Navajo slaves. Meanwhile the Navajo carried out raids on the Mexicans not only for sheep and other plunder but to rescue Navajo slaves.

a modern pictorial Navajo rugAn interesting result of Navajo women being captured for slaves was the making of 'slave blankets'. These were woven on Navajo looms but to Mexican tastes in design and color.

In 1862 The US War Department decided that extreme action would be carried out to end the "Indian problem". It was decided that all Navajos and Apaches would be rounded up and taken to live at Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Kit Carson was selected to carry out this plan.

"Believing they would choose imprisonment over death, Carson decided to starve the Navajo into submission. To do so, his troops destroyed crops, poisoned water holes, burned peach trees and hogans, killed sheep and stole horses." P 46 (the Navajo weaving tradition)

Stamp commemorating Navajo rugsHis strategy was most effective and almost all the Navajos were driven to Bosque Redondo under terrible conditions. As is so common in such endeavors the land where they were taken could not begin to provide for the Indian livelihood and the shipment of provisions for the Indians was corrupt and inadequate for their needs. It took years of horrific conditions before the government realized that their plan was untenable. Finally in 1868 the Navajo were sent back to their homeland.

After their internment life for the Navajo was never the same as before. They had been plunged into poverty and many were left dependent on Government support for years to come. Almost all of their fine churro sheep were gone. They were replaced with merino sheep of inferior quality wool. Instead of the long silky wool of their former sheep these replacement sheep had short, kinky oily wool that was not suitable for hand spun yarn. Because of this the Navajo became dependent on commercial yarns and commercial fabrics that they could unravel. At this time the Navajo began to use commercial synthetic dyes as well.

Their new situation brought both negative and positive changes. The Navajo had become much more dependent on the government. Carding and hand spinning of the yarns and even the wearing of traditional Navajo clothing had come to an end. At Bosque Redondo women had only cotton trade cloth supplied by the government to make clothing. Women's styles turned to calico skirts and blouses and men's to pants and shirts. At the same time the possibilities in yarns and in colors offered by synthetic dyes were expanded. There came a period of great experimentation with color.


old Navajo trading postThe latter part of the 19th century into the 20th brought another marked influence to Navajo weaving. Trading posts had popped up both on and next to the Navajo reservation. These traders quickly saw the possibilities of Navajo weaving as a rich market. They began to introduce these woven items to consumers in the eastern part of the United States. Traders could benefit in many ways. They could offer commercially made blankets in trade for Navajo weaving. Manufactured Pendleton blankets were a popular item among Native Americans from the late 1800s well into the 1900s. Many had Navajo like designs. The traders could also provide the Navajo with many of the supplies they now needed to make their blankets and rugs including synthetic dye and spun yarn.

Some traders took another step that began to influence the quality and designs of Navajo weaving. They gave incentives to the Navajo to excel in their weaving. For a period of time the method of paying Navajo weavers by the pound for large coarsely woven floor rugs had discouraged fine workmanship. One trader, Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, had a significant influence on the development of Navajo weaving. He owned several trading posts over the years the best known being the trading post at Ganado located on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. His method to encourage fine weaving was quite simply to refuse to buy anything that was not of excellent quality. Hubble provided better quality "Germantown" yarns for weaving. He also commissioned an artist to paint some outstanding examples of Navajo weaving and hung them in his trading post to inspire the weavers.

Hubbell and others noticed that consumers in the east were more interested in rugs than blankets and encouraged the making of these heavier and larger weavings. Persian rugs were popular in the east so traders began to encourage designs patterned after Oriental rugs. These new designs had borders and were more complex. The 20th century brought another incentive to designers and weavers. Santa Fe and other locations held great fairs where natives could show and sell there weaving, pottery and baskets. These fairs also increased American interest in Navajo weaving.

modern Navajo flag rug with tree of life


Over 100 years after the influence of the trading posts the art of Navajo weaving has advanced far beyond what the traders could ever have imagined. Navajo rugs and tapestries are sought out by both collectors and those who find them to be beautiful additions to their homes. The rug pictured to the right is an example of how some weavers have integrated the American Flag into quilts made after 9/11/2001.

2005 Judy Anne Johnson Breneman (Do not reproduce this article without permission from the author.)


1 p6 A Guide to Navajo Weaving by Kent McManis & Robert Jeffries

2 p10 Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian by Eulalie H. Bonar, National Museum of the American Indian

3 The Navajo Weaving Tradition: 1650 to the Present by Alice Kaufman, Christopher Selser

Related Websites:

Navajo Weaving: Yesterday and Today
Learn about the methods and styles used in Navajo quilting.

Art of the Southwest by Canyon Country Originals: Navajo Rugs
A brief history with many pictures of different styles of rugs.