Tradition & Trade

Spider Rock

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly (near the town of Chinle, Arizona).

The Navajo, who call themselves Diné, meaning “The People”, honor Spider Woman and Man, the holy people who first brought weaving knowledge to them. Their weaving traditions developed in the U.S. Southwest after the Athabascan speakers arrived sometime around 1400 CE (CE=AD), and emerged as a distinctive Navajo activity by 1650. Generations of weavers used handmade tools and local materials to clothe their families with blankets in traditional and innovative patterns.

Navajo weaving was not isolated. It shared many traits—upright loom, specific techniques, and early blanket styles—with weaving by the Puebloan peoples who lived in neighboring villages. During the 1600s, contacts with Spaniards and Mexicans introduced sheep’s wool and indigo dye. By the early 1700s, Navajos actively traded their blankets to other Indian tribes, and received praise for their tight weaving and bold patterns.

“Michael and I hope visitors consider many different ways of seeing Navajo people. When you see the rugs, it's like gazing into a crystal that you rotate, seeing how we feel and considering how earlier weavers felt. Our words are not what the weaver may have intended, but we find that using metaphors helps us relate to our predecessors as human beings instead of silent faces in a photograph.” —Sierra Ornelas

Map of the Navajo region

Map of the Navajo region in the late 19th century. Adapted from "Blanket Weaving in the Southwest" by Joe Ben Wheat, edited by Ann Lane Hedlund, 2003, The University of Arizona Press, pg. 37. Original illustration by Kathleen Koopman. Adapted for the web by Laura LePere.

Woman’s two-piece dress

Woman’s two-piece dress
ca. 1870-1875
Tapestry weave, interlocked joins
1.2 x 0.78 m; Tassels 0.090 m
30.709 x 47.244 in.; Tassels 3.543 in.
Catalog No. E-2856
ASM purchase from E. E. Ellwood, 1955

“If you tell people these were dresses, they ask, ‘How did you wear those things?’ The old dresses were open on the side and fastened where it is now frayed. It’s hard to visualize what these dresses looked like if they’re just hung up on the wall.” —Barbara Ornelas

“You see simple stepped diamonds everywhere on dresses; that’s what many dresses look like. This, however, has a distinct pattern.” —Sierra Ornelas


Woman’s two-piece dress 2

Function Fiber Type Ply-Spin-Twist Color Dye Count *
Warp Wool Handspun -- Z -- White None 13
Weft Wool Raveled 1 Z -- Red C Coch 95+Lac 5, Tested 2004 --
Weft Wool Raveled 2 S -- Red--Solid/Speckled A, B Lac, Tested, 2004 71
Weft Wool Handspun -- Z -- Dk Blue Indigo 61
Weft Wool Handspun -- Z -- Dk Brown-Black None Blk+Native 61
Ecord Wool Handspun 3 z S Dk Blue Indigo 2
Other Wool Commercial 2 Z S Black Synthetic? --
Other Wool Handspun 3 z S Dk Blue Indigo --
Other Cotton Handspun 3 Z S Black Synthetic --
Other Wool Handspun 3 z S Dk Blue Indigo --
* threads/inch