The History of Navajo Rugs
(and the story of the "Spirit String")
The history of Navajo rugs goes back to around 1700, when the Navajo were believed to have learned the craft of rug-making from the Pueblo Indians. This theory is supported by stories passed down from tribal elders as well as examples of Navajo Rugs dating back to 1700 that are a close parallel to rugs made by the Pueblo Indians. The main difference between rugs made by the two groups is that Navajo rugs were made with wool, while the Pueblo rugs were made with cotton.
The Navajo Nation is the western part of the United States. The Nation occupies much of the land in an area called the four corners. This is where the corners of four states meet - Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. There are still Navajo rug makers in that area that weave these rugs in the traditional handcrafted way.
Navajo rugs, one of the types of Southwestern rugs, cover a wide range of intricate patterns and designs, with an emphasis on geometric lines and shapes. The rug design may include a family emblem, have religious overtones, or show appreciation for one or more aspects of the environment.
Dyes to color the rugs were made from a variety of plant sources until the mid 1800’s, when the Navajo started using dye sources introduced by Europeans, mainly German and Spanish. Toward the end of the 1800’s, some of the Navajo rug makers started using commercial yarn rather than preparing their own wool from the sheep they raised. The Europeans also introduced the Navajo to other designs, such as Oriental rug patterns, that could be included into the Navajo rugs.
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Although I have been calling them rugs, most of these flat-woven creations were used for blankets or worn on the shoulders of the tribal chiefs until the 1880’s. That’s when the trading posts began asking for more pillow covers and blankets to meet the demand of visitors wanting to decorate their homes. At first, the items were of an inferior quality, due to so many being made in a short time. The rug-makers realized they needed to be true to their craft and quality took precedence over production time. Many people wanted floor coverings instead of blankets and that’s when the making of Navajo rugs really began.
Near the end of the 1800’s there was a huge increase in the number of rugs made and the economic significance of rug-making due to the demand from trading posts and white tourists. Starting in the 1890’s, the Santa Fe railroad made it possible for more and more visitors from all around the United States as well as Europe to visit the Southwest region. Simply put, they loved the Navajo rugs and the rugs were more than souvenirs, they were an original work of art.
The Story of the "Spirit String"
An interesting tradition still followed by many (if not all) Navajo rug makers is making sure that a “spirit string” is part of the completed rug. You see, the Navajo rug maker puts a lot of time and effort into each handmade rug. They believe that part of their spirit or soul gets trapped in the rug as it is woven on the loom. They purposely leave a small piece of yarn, called the “spirit string,” sticking out slightly from the surface of the rug. This will allow their spirit or soul a way to get out of the rug.
Also, the Navajo believe that only God is perfect and that what humans do cannot be on the same perfect level. Therefore, they will make sure some little imperfection is part of anything they create. Usually, one has to look very close to find the imperfection, so it does not detract from the beauty of the item. On a Navajo rug, it’s the loose piece of yarn. On beaded handiwork, one of the beads might be threaded differently to ensure some slight imperfection. For many people, even though the imperfection is not noticeable, knowing it’s part of the creation adds to the charm.
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