Canku Ota


(Many Paths)


An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 24, 2001 - Issue 32



Designing Weavers


by Penelope Reedy -Idaho Journal Writer


Navajo artisans design blankets, garments thread by thread

Navajo blankets are not pre-designed, says Wesley Thomas, Idaho State University professor of Native American studies and a Navajo weaver.

"They're not sure what colors or designs they'll use until they start envisioning the design; they develop their own aesthetics," Thomas says. "They see how it turns out at the middle point and then weave the rest in reverse."

Thomas' mother, Katherine Thomas, a weaver of more than 50 years, is visiting the Museum of Natural History this week to kick off a new exhibit, "Navajo Weaving Through Time and Space." Several of the Navajo blankets on display are on loan from the Navajo Nation Museum, Window Rock, Ariz. Others were woven by Thomas and his mother. Katherine Thomas is from Mariano Lake, N. M., on the Navajo Reservation where she and her family raise a mixed breed of sheep, some of which are descendants of the Spanish Churro sheep imported to the southwest about 400 years ago.

One of the exhibits is a wool dress woven by both Thomases in 1992, a design worn by women prior to 1885. Wesley Thomas has woven symbols into the dress to illustrate the Navajo creation story. The dress is predominantly black with red and white accents.

"The beginning of time is in the middle of the dress (plain black), where life begins for women, representing uncertainty, a starting point," he says.Four white symbols illustrate water, land, fire and language, elements of the creation story that includes the deities Changing Woman and Spider Woman, a weaver. "Language is very important; the Navajo believe you create your reality with your words," he says.

The exhibit includes blankets worn by men, women and children; "rugs" woven and sold to wealthy easterners from 1885 to 1960; and a period of modernity when the works were reclassified as art.

"People shook rugs off the floor and hung them on the wall and called it art," Wesley Thomas said.

The oldest blanket in the collection is a child's blanket from 1882 or 1883. The weaving is fragile, made from a softer, finer Churro wool fiber than most of the mixed breeds used today.

Thomas also has the last blanket his grandmother made.

"She's 81 now and not able to weave," he said.

Photos accompanying the exhibit include historical ones from Window Rock showing women weaving and spinning, groups of the people tending sheep, etc. Others were taken by Thomas, photos of his grandmother's and mother's hands. The blankets figured prominently in the women's household economy.

"My grandmother would weave a small blanket in two days and take it to the trading post and trade it for a bag of groceries," he said.

Another aspect of the exhibit includes a display of natural vegetable dyes. Included are sprigs of "Mormon Tea," yucca, juniper leaves and berries and other natural barks, leaves and berries, as well as red and yellow onion skins. Colors derived range from deep purples to pale greens.

"But you can't say what color you'll get for sure," he says.


A History of Navajo Weaving

Navajo Rugs: Styles on the Reservations




  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the

Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 of Paul C. Barry.

All Rights Reserved.