CHAPTER VIII. The Temporary Deterioration of the Art of Navaho Blanket Weaving


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IT IS essential in studying aright the history of the Navaho blanket and its present condition to realize the causes that led to its deterioration, and, for a time, almost threatened its destruction. Fortunately, this condition was but temporary, and has been, in the main, bravely overcome.

As explained in an earlier chapter, up to about thirty-five or forty years ago the only Navaho blankets one could secure were bayetas, ‘‘„native-wools„’’ and ‘‘„native dyes,„’’ with, now and again, a cheaper grade used as common blankets.

Four things were responsible for the rapid change and decline in the character of the Navaho weavers' work. These were:

1. The introduction of Germantown yarns. 2. The commercialization of the art. 3. The introduction of aniline dyes. 4. The introduction of cotton warps.

Let us consider these factors in their order and see how much influence each contributed to the temporary breakdown of the art.

1. The Introduction of Germantown Yarns

At the first, when Germantown yarn was introduced to the Navaho, fully forty years ago, the weaver took it upon herself to retwist the yarn to make it firmer and tighter. The result was that the earlier woven Germantowns are almost as good as those made from bayeta or native-dyed wools. The reason for this is clear. The earlier Germantown yarns were dyed, as were the English bayetas, from old vegetable and other dyes of tested quality, and the mordants were as carefully chosen as the dyes. Hence the colors were sure and reasonably free from liability to fade.

But there was a subtle, because almost imperceptible, injurious influence introduced when the weaver could purchase yarn ready-made instead of being compelled to engage in the labor of making it herself.

When, too, the Germantown yarns began to be dyed with aniline dyes they lost their old time charms, gave to the civilized world more gorgeous brilliant hues, dazzled its eyes as well as those of the Navaho weavers, and helped pervert the popular taste in regard to colors, just as

FIG. 30. Unique Zuni Squaw Dress. (Fred Harvey Collection.) The design and color scheme in this blanket are entirely unique; so is its history. Two styles of weaving, different from the general type of Navaho work, and the introduction of two different shades of indigo blue, combine to make this a very rare specimen. [PAGE 41]


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too much salt in a cooked dish destroys the subtler and finer flavors and essential essences of the dish itself.

Yet while the general effect of the introduction of Germantown yarns was to produce deterioration for a time, there were some weavers who now did their best work. The marvelous increase in colors and the ease with which they procured the yarn all ready for weaving seemed to stimulate these women to high endeavor. Hence, some exquisite specimens of Germantown blankets come to us from this period. Such a one is Fig. 37, from the Vroman collection. It is as gorgeous as a ballet in a Christmas pantomime, and though it fairly revels in riotous color, in design and weave it is a wonderfully superior piece of work. I doubt if a finer piece of Navaho weaving of Germantown yarn has ever been seen. It is as close and tight as felt and will carry water today, although it has been in constant use on the floor ever since it was purchased.

2. The Commercialization of the Art

Now came the serious step in the art's downfall. It appeared for a while as if it might be a frightful precipice over which it would fall forever. And yet, when the step was first taken, it was with the best of intention and without any thought of doing injury to the Navahos or their art. Indeed, it was with the desire to enlarge the Indians' productiveness. John Lorenzo Hubbell was already well established as an Indian trader among the Navahos at Ganado, Arizona. In the year 1884 C. N. Cotton joined him there in partnership.

Their whole purchase of blankets that year amounted to but between 300 and 400 pounds. These were of the common, straight-pattern type and were purchased or traded for at about $2.00 each. No saddle-blankets were either offered for sale or bought.

The following year Messrs. Hubbell and Cotton began to see possibilities in the blanket business. Why could they not get a market for these products of the Navahos' looms? While the finer quality of nativewool, native-dyed blankets, and also those of Germantown yarn were being made, practically none were being offered for sale or barter to the traders. Mr. Cotton began to urge upon the weavers that they bring in more blankets of the better qualities and also that they make more of the common grades. Little by little they built up a good business, and all seemed to be well. The Navahos were glad of the increase in their income, and the fact that Hubbell and Cotton purchased all the blankets the weavers brought in soon spread over the reservation, and added both to their fame, their ordinary business, and the stock of their blankets. This state of affairs continued, however, for but a short time.


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Two new and disturbing elements were at hand. These were the introduction of aniline dyes and cotton warps.

3. The Introduction of Aniline Dyes

At this time, Mr. B. F. Hyatt, who was the post trader at Fort Defiance, introduced aniline dyes and taught the Navaho women with whom he traded how to use them. Mr. Cotton wished to do the same at Ganado, but Mr. Hubbell objected, foreseeing what afterwards actually occurred—the deterioration of the quality of the work. The Navahos already had indigo and most of the old blankets in which blue is the predominating color date from the early eighteen eighties. The indigo was purchased from the Mexicans, or later, from the traders.

In the winter of 1886-7, however, Mr. Cotton had his way and he succeeded in having one of the great dye manufacturers put up, ready for use, a quantity of aniline dyes. He instructed the weavers how to prepare them and then encouraged them in the making of various and individualistic designs. Those weavers who showed artistic and inventive skill he took particular pains with, as now did also Mr. Hubbell, and instead of buying the product of their looms by the pound, they were purchased by the piece—the price always being proportioned to the tightness and fineness of the yarn, the cleanliness of the wool, the color scheme, the individuality of the design, and the closeness of the weave.

Thus was begun the trade in the modern blanket, and to Mr. Hyatt is due the honor—and also the execration—that has followed the introduction of the aniline dye to the Navahos. For a time all seemed to go well. The demand for Navaho blankets increased rapidly. The traders could not secure enough to supply their customers.

4. The Introduction of Cotton Warp

To hasten on the manufacture of more blankets, therefore, the traders themselves introduced a cotton warp which they sold at a low price to the Indian. Thus relieved of the trouble and labor of making wool warps, blankets were made much easier, and therefore cheaper than before, and speedily a great demand was created for cheap blankets. Urged on to greater productiveness the Indians failed to clean the wool aright; they had neither the time properly to scour and wash it, remove the burrs, nor extract the dirt, dust, and grease. Such wool as this never takes the dye properly, hence the colors were uneven. Rushed to complete her task, for which she knew she would get a small price, the weaver

Fig. 31. Zuni Squaw Dress, Fine Old Weave. (Author's Collection.) [Page 41]


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spun her dirty, greasy, poorly-carded, imperfectly-dyed wool into the loosest, thickest, and coarsest kind of yarn, and then hastily and indifferently wove it—upon the cheap and flimsy cotton warp—in poor designs, with a loose stitch, the sooner to get it into the trader's hands and secure her pay.

Even in the case of the Germantown yarns, cotton warps were used, and though the designs were better than in the ordinary blankets the work was hastily done, not thoroughly battened down, and consequently soon exposed the flimsy warp to the wear and tear of daily use.

These were the factors that combined to pull down and degrade the weaver's art, but it did not take practical business sense long to assert itself and bring about a change. This was being done slowly, but surely, all the leading traders refusing to purchase at any price the badly cleaned, dyed, spun, and woven articles. Unable to sell them or even get rid of them in trade, the weavers were compelled to use them for their own purposes, and thus the most careless and indifferent were brought to see the necessity for improvement, when, by the irony of fate, a well-intentioned movement, inaugurated by two wealthy New York brothers brought back for a short time the evil conditions, and yet, in the end, made the improvement more certain. In about the year 1900 the Hyde Exploring Expedition was organized. Mr. B. T. Babbitt-Hyde and his brother were exceedingly desirous of thoroughly and scientifically exploring the little known and secret recesses of the Navaho reservation, and they became so interested in the Navahos and their weaving art that they determined to help enlarge their output of blankets by opening up large depots in American cities to dispose of all they would weave. A most laudable purpose and one which should have redounded to their credit. But, unfortunately, all their traders in the field were not imbued with their spirit and high purpose, and before they could stop it, the demand created for blankets was bringing in a flood of the wretchedly inferior work above described.

The results might have been foreseen. The public—or the more shrewd and discerning of it—refused to buy this inferior work, whether of the dirty, greasy, coarser native wools, or the poorer work of the expensive Germantown yarns. Yet the flood of poor quality, thick, coarse, loosely woven blankets, wretchedly dyed in hideous combinations of colors continued to pour into the market. As an art, Navaho weaving was doomed unless something speedily was done. While the conscientious traders had purchased few or none of this kind, selecting all the blankets offered with the greatest care and discernment, this other flood placed the Hyde Exploring Expedition in the anomalous position of offering for sale, at one and the same time, though through their different stores, the


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very highest specimens of the modern Navaho weaver's art, and the lowest—or pretty nearly so.

The very magnitude of this laudable and praiseworthy endeavor, the great advertising it secured, the immense number of the blankets purchased, the arousal of the public interest, the number of newspaper and magazine articles published about the Navaho Indian and his blanket, all had an educative effect, which had an ultimate reaction for positive good upon the art itself. Unable to cope with the situation, or determined to free themselves from the burden placed upon them by irresponsible men, the Hyde Exploring Expedition sold out to Mr. J. W. Benham and his associates, who speedily established the business upon a sound footing, on the lines indicated in the next chapter. The lesson has been well learned. The public, now, is too well-informed upon the Navaho blanket to tolerate any further playing with the business. It demands, and will have, good blankets, or none, and in that insistent demand the art finds its chief and surest safeguard.

FIG. 32. Pueblo-made Squaw Dress. (Author's Collection.) [PAGE 42]

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