Textiles of the West

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by Jim Olson 

When collecting textiles associated with the West, a few different styles come to mind. Hudson Bay and other “Trade” blankets, including Pendleton, were traded on the frontier and are still collected today. Chimayo weavings were woven in New Mexico and remain a popular tradition. Serapes made their way up from old Mexico. However, the Navajo textile, in our opinion, is by far the most desirable and sought after by collectors.

It is a generally accepted fact that the Navajo learned to weave blankets from contact with their neighbors in the Pueblos starting a couple of hundred years ago. The introduction of sheep into the Southwest by the Spaniards had been a key part in this development. The Pueblos were using cotton for weaving textiles prior to the arrival of sheep but, with their introduction, the blanket weaving craft took on a whole new level. By the 1800s, the Navajo had started weaving in earnest and liked sheep for their dual purpose food and wool supply.

Like many things adopted by the Navajo, they took this craft and turned it into something all their own. Navajo textiles have long been the standard in Native American textiles. There is no other group of people so universally known in the West for weaving as the Navajo and their name is synonymous with fine hand-woven textiles.

Prior to the late 1800s, their textiles were generally wearing blankets made for themselves or for trade with other Natives. However, in the late 1800s, they started weaving rugs for the tourist trade thanks to encouragement from the Trading Posts and other traders on and around the reservation. Not that their weavings weren’t prized possessions prior to this. A few lucky frontiersmen were fortunate enough to have traded for some in the early days.

As a way to better market the textiles being trading for, the traders would encourage weavers to make certain designs or color patterns that appealed to their buyers. This led to what is known as “regional” textiles. Some well-known regions for weaving within the vast reservation are Ganado, Two Grey Hills, Crystal, Burntwater and Chinle, just to name a few. Each of these regions became known for various patterns or designs and colors. The traders used these unique designs to market the textiles.

The “regional” period lasted during approximately the first half of the twentieth century, give or take a little on each end. Before that, as mentioned, most Navajo weavings were wearing or “Chief’s” blankets and after that period, the regions have become a bit blurred. Now-a-days, weavers often weave basic patterns they consider traditional to their areas but may also use design elements from other places as well. Today, it is not as cut-and-dried to tell which region of the reservation a textile came from simply by its color pattern and style.

Another thing that has changed over the years is the wool. Expert collectors and dealers actually judge the wool and other design elements when ascertaining the age of a weaving. In the early days, textiles used only wool from the Churro sheep, which is what the Spanish had brought with them when they first arrived. Churro wool was a long staple, fine, silky wool that was then hand-spun and hand-dyed. 

Over the years, the Churro were crossbred with “meat” sheep such as the Merino. This was done in an effort to improve meat production but it had an unintended negative affect on the wool and the wool changed to a coarser, shorter variety that was not as conducive to fine weaving.

In modern times, commercial yarn is often used. Experts who are good at dating when a Navajo textile was made tend to look at the wool, type of dyes used and the overall pattern or design. By combing the various data, a fairly accurate conclusion can be drawn as to when and where a particular weaving was made.

What do collectors collect when it comes to textiles? The short answer is—just about everything mentioned in the beginning. However, you will generally find that a higher premium is paid for older textiles in great condition. Old and rare patterns are highly sought after and Navajo wearing or “Chiefs” blankets from the 1800s are generally the highest valued. Well made, tightly woven textiles of any age are also desirable. As with most types of collectibles, items surviving a long period of time and still in good condition are very treasured.

Besides a great old Navajo rug, other textiles sought after by collectors include Chimayo weavings, Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and other “trade” blankets.

Trade blankets appeared on the frontier during the 1700s. The originals were made in England and eventually were traded with many Natives and Frontiersmen. Although HBC blankets were the first and most popular ‘Trade Blanket,” there were other companies that made them as well. Most of these other companies appeared on the scene during the mid to late 1800s. Of these, Pendleton remains the most well-known.

The first Pendleton blankets were made in the 1890s and are in production to this day. There are many Pendleton blankets that are sought after by collectors especially those made prior to WWII. The 1890s to 1940s blankets bring a premium by far over the ones made since. However, there are certain later patterns and limited editions that will still fetch good money on the resale market.

Chimayo weavings have been woven in New Mexico by descendants of the Spaniards ever since they introduced sheep to the New World. The standard Chimayo design consists of colored stripes at each end with a center design and the “Rio Grande” is a blended design that is also a very popular Chimayo weaving. Chimayo textiles are a little less prevalent in the collectors’ world than some of the other textiles mentioned but there are still some fine examples out there that are sought after.

Wearing blankets known as serapes and other weavings from Mexico also appeared on the frontier, mostly in the Southwest. While these are collected by collectors of Mexican related items for the most part, they also enjoy a crossover market with Western and Native collectors.

What should we be wary of? There are many “Southwest style” textiles made overseas and imported. Hardcore collectors usually avoid these. Also, there are many modern blankets and rugs woven in Mexico that are sometimes confused with those made by the Navajo. It is wise to learn the difference. Not that there isn’t a collector’s market for good Mexican handmade textiles—especially the vintage and antique stuff. Just be sure you know which is which. Avoid textiles with too much damage when possible. Also, as a general rule, collectible textiles of the West are made of wool, not cotton.

In closing, it is always advisable to deal with a reputable dealer or expert collector when looking to purchase collectible textiles. Especially since some of them can be worth many thousands of dollars, while others are worth only hundreds of dollars. So you want to make sure you do not get the two  mixed  up or  fall prey to an unscrupulous seller who sells you the latter for the price of the former. 

Education is important. Read books, look at pictures, go to shows where you can see them in person. Talk to other collectors and dealers before making a purchase. But, most importantly, enjoy the process. A fine, collectible textile is a treasure that  can be enjoyed for many years to come.

Jim Olson© 2021 www.WesternTradingPost.com

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