The Navajo Nation

The largest American Indian tribe, or First Nation, of the USA is the Navajo (say nah-vuh-hoe), whose name for their tribe is Diné (say dee-neh), which means ‘the people’.  The Navajo Nation is an area of 71, 000 square km  that extends into the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. It is governed by the Navajo themselves, through an elected Council, within the laws of the USA. 

The Navajo, like other First Nation tribes, wove rugs and blankets that were part of their clothing, worn as a warm wrap. The rugs had many uses in everyday life, as blankets, door curtains and floor rugs.  There are different styles of rug patterns, according to the area they come from, and the period of time they were made. 

Today rugs are still made in the traditional way, although by fewer and fewer weavers, and large ones command high prices.

The ancient Navajo belief is that when the world was created, one of the Creators was Spider Woman, who taught them how to spin and weave, and even today weavers always give thanks to her for that gift. In some rugs made in the famous Two Grey Hills area, the last line of the pattern is left uncoloured and goes to the outer edge: this is to return the gift to Spider Woman so she will keep it safe and then return it to the weaver when the next rug is ready to be started.

Navajo herd churro sheep, which have long-haired fleece in a range of colours from white through many shades of brown to grey and black. 

After being sheared, usually by hand clippers, the fleece is washed, and this is something the whole community does together. First the matted, dirty edges of the fleece are cut off and set aside for being made into felt. The fleeces are washed with natural soap made from the pounded roots of yucca plants and are then spread to dry in the sun. 

The next step is to card the wool. One chunk at a time, the fleece is combed between two wire-toothed brushes that are rather like dog grooming brushes, except they are larger with curved backs.  This smoothes out the fleece, bringing the fibres together evenly.

The carded wool is flipped off the brushes in a smooth, light roll called a rolag. The fibres pull easily out of the rolag during spinning. Different coloured fleece can be combined to make a different colour by carding them together.

The wool must be spun into yarn, and the Navajo do not use a spinning wheel, but rather the older, traditional spindle. It takes a lot of practice to be able to spin a fine, even thread that has no lumps. The spindle is weighted at the bottom, and the spun yarn is gradually wound onto the stick until it is full. 

To store the yarn so that it doesn't get into knots, it is often made into big loops called skeins (say skanes). Each big loop is then twisted. Sometimes the spun yarn is rolled into balls. The skeins can be dyed, using any of a number of plants that grow wild. The skeins and balls are easily stored, sorted into colours.  Sometimes wool is spun again to twist two threads of yarn together to make thicker yarn or to make a two-colour effect.  Spun yarn is then ready for weaving (or knitting).

The loom is threaded with yarn, usually white. These are the warp (say wore-p) threads. Navajo looms are upright, but there are many different kinds and sizes of looms used by other cultures. Whatever the loom, weaving must have warp threads as the base. The wool that is woven in and out of the warp threads are the weft threads. Together, warp and weft make a fabric.

A stick called a heddle is threaded in and out of the warp threads. When turned on its side it opens a space for the weft to be threaded through, and then pushed down to the row below.

This loom is outside a traditional Navajo home called a hogan, and there is another one in the background. However, most Navajo live in modern houses. 

Notice how the already woven part is moved up the back of the loom as the rug grows, so the working area is kept at a comfortable height. You can see the heddle: the stick threaded through the warp threads. Notice too that the weaver has a woven rug to sit on.

From shearing to spinning: a series of photos of Navajo people keeping alive the old traditional ways.

Watch a slideshow with small videos to see a Navajo woman weaving on a small loom. You can see how the loom is threaded with warp threads, and you can see her weaving the weft threads in different colours. You can see the pattern beginning to show.

The Navajo have their own traditional way of using a spindle to spin the wool into yarn. There are other traditional ways of spinning with a spindle, sometimes called a 'drop spindle' if used by having it dangle. You can buy inexpensive spindles and carded wool at craft or weaving stores.   In Australia washed and carded wool is sometimes called 'wool tops' or 'rovings', and is coloured.

You can learn how to spin using a drop spindle by watching this video.

You can even make your own spindle using old CDs (or an apple or a potato). Download a free e-book here to learn how to make a spindle and how to use it to spin your own yarn.

Read the kidcyber page about wool