Antique Navajo rugs & textiles
Antique Navajo rugs and textiles are items of antique Native American weaving, including blankets and rugs.
Background and Description
The Navajo people are a vast Native tribe of America, renowned for their weaving. Their textiles were originally blankets used as cloaks, dresses, and other useful objects. Navajo textiles have been sought after as trade items for over 150 years. After the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1822, commerce expanded and a large number of Navajo textiles survive from this era. They became highly prized trade items, bought for vast amounts of gold. In the mid 1800s, commercial yarn was introduced and in many cases replaced the wool traditionally sourced from the Navajo churo sheep. Towards the end of the 19th century, Navajo textiles began to be produced for tourism and export purposes. Wool production more than doubled, and textile production grew more than 800% between 1890 and 1910.
Navajo textiles are flag tapestry woven items, incorporating strong geometric patterns. They were woven on upright looms with no moving parts. Support poles were generally made of wood. The weaver was seated on the floor, the finished portion of fabric collecting underneath the loom as it grew. Rugs took anything from two months to many years to make.
The most valuable Navajo weavings are blankets, in particular Navajo Chiefs blankets, as at their time of manufacture only chiefs or wealthy individuals could afford them. These come in designs of one of four phases, some rarer than others.
After the introduction of the railroads, cheap blankets could be imported, so the Navajo people turned their attention to weaving rugs, increasingly for tourists and non-Natives. At this point, commercially dyed wool was also introduced, expanding colour palettes, and European-American settlers encouraged weavers to concentrate on particular styles and patterns.
Navajo weaving is considered a fine art, and textile production continues. Weavers opt to work with either natural or commercial dyes, and traditional or more modern designs. Contemporary weavers often learn their trade from college courses rather than methods being traditionally passed down through families.
Collecting antique Navajo rugs and textiles
It may be that Navajo textiles are so popular among collectors because every single one is unique, possibly taking months or years to produce. While patterns are styles were adhered to, no two blankets or rugs are the same. Collectors delight in discovering the history of their particular item, if this can indeed be discovered.
A collector of antique Navajo textiles would generally avoid anything produced after 1950. Some would focus on the 1800s alone, some purely on the first half of the 1800s before the introduction of factory produced yarn. Blankets are more popular and valuable than rugs, as Navajo blankets were produced for the use of Navajo people including chiefs dating from hundreds of years before white settlers took an interest in them, whereas many of the rugs were manufactured initially as trade items from the end of the 19th century onwards.
Prior to the mid 19th-century, colouration was limited to natural brown, white and indigo. By the mid 1800s, colours of red, black, green, yellow and gray were available. After the establishment of the railroad service, a whole new palette was imported, including brighter and less natural shades of red, orange, green, purple and yellow. The textiles using these vibrant colours were known as ‘Eye-Dazzler’ blankets.
Textiles can be evaluated based on history, use of traditional techniques, design, colour consistency, size, tightness of weave, and reputation of the particular weaver. Textures can be examined to establish whether a textile is of homespun yarn or commercial yarn, due to how regular or irregular the diameter is.
Navajo textiles are generally bought and sold through auction, being high-end collectible items. There are many different styles and patterns of textiles, named after the various trading posts: Burntwater rugs, Chinle rugs, Crystal rugs, Ganado rugs, Pictorial rugs, Red Mesa rugs, Teec Nos Pos rugs, Two Grey Hills rugs, Wide Ruins rugs, Yei rugs etc. The most popular and sought-after Navajo textiles are Chief’s blankets, though other blankets such as the Mantas, Serapes, Classic blankets, Germantown blankets, transitional blankets and saddle blankets are also very collectible. Blankets and rugs can also be found at the trading posts themselves, as well as markets in the area, and even from reservation families. However, these items may be contemporary produced textiles and not antiques.
Navajo rugs and blankets have been extensively studied by anthropologists as well as collectors, and there is an abundance of literature on Navajo weaving. When determining if an item is genuine, this will be of great assistance.
An early 20th century Navajo rug generally fetches around $10,000-$20,000. Eye-Dazzler rugs are popular, and can command prices of $60,000-$100,000. Rugs are generally less valuable than blankets. Antique Navajo blankets generally sell for tens of thousands, and can sell for up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Value is dependent on the rarity of the design, as well as the condition and provenance.
The record for a sale of a Navajo textile is held by the Chantland Chief’s wearing blanket, sold for $1.8 million at John Moran Auctioneers in June 2012. This is the second highest price ever achieved for a Native American artefact at auction.
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