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It’s Up to Her: The Significance of Design Elements

Earlier this week, Warren Stromberg sent me the question below as part of a longer post. I’ve followed it with my answer, but both of us hope that this question stimulates more comment, especially from the weavers out there.

“I am aware that authors ranging from Gladys Reichard to Kate Peck Kent have published comments to the effect that, yei rugs and sandpainting rugs aside, there is no significance to design elements in Navajo weaving; the designs are simply traditional ones that “do not have emotional content” for the weaver. The display of Teec rugs at the Heard North and rugs such as the contemporary one woven by Marie Yazzie make me question that idea. So, the question: do you know of any serious treatment of this subject (religious significance of design elements in Navajo rugs) in the literature? Teec designs may be of particular interest.”

The most serious treatment I know of on the subject was done by Roseann Willink and Paul Zolbod and is a book called Weaving a World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeing. In this book, the authors attribute all kinds of significance to patterns, and promote the hypothesis that the weavers deliberately placed feathers, pieces of bone and other items into weavings as a means of making personal statements. They also found significance in the idiosyncratic patterning sometimes found in weaving, particularly in vintage weaves. Some of the support for their ideas comes from interviews with Navajo elders and others. I found the ideas presented interesting but not supported by my experience. When I’ve talked about design with many weavers, I’ve heard things like “it’s just a pattern that I saw”, or “well, my Mom did them this way”, or “these always sell for more”. Moreover, many of the Navajo elders I’ve worked with find it very difficult to even be around some sandpainting and Ye’i rugs because of the religious significance, let alone to discuss them with someone.

Some of the difficulty in getting a definitive answer to a question like this from direct questioning is the tendency of people to tell interviewers, researchers, anthropologists and reporters whatever they want to hear. I think it’s tempting for Navajos to do this because it avoids having to explain complex issues that don’t always translate well from Navajo into English. It also makes the interviewers just so darn happy, which is also part of Navajo culture, not to mention the added benefit that this also usually makes the questioner go away. There may also be an element of joking and humor in all of this, which is usually lost on people who are not familiar with Navajo culture.

My own opinion is that the personal and religious significance of a design in the Navajo context simply depends on the weaver, and I think it always did, although there was and is almost always a strong element of marketing in Navajo weaving. My friend, Jennie Slick, explained the process of design in the Navajo manner this way: “When I weave the first line, I submit myself to the rug and it just pulls me through. I’m as anxious as you are are to see the final result.” When you look at it in this way, it is not only design but the whole weaving process which has significance.

Ann Hedlund believes that there are about 25,000 active weavers. A large group of them are what might be called occasional weavers, who weave only when they need money or want to give a weaving as a gift. There is another large group of journeyman or utility weavers, who weave on a regular basis and whose weaving is a part of their family income. There is a smaller group of master weavers whose work is highly collectible and appears in books and publications; they push the envelopes of design and quality to the maximum possible limits. There are also some few weavers who are fine artists with work represented in galleries and exhibitions. Finally, there is a class of weaver who might be called a revival weaver. Typically, these weavers have been denied or rejected the opportunity to learn to weave in childhood because of urban flight, boarding school, peer pressure or youthful rebellion and return to the craft as adults, not as a means of earning income, but because of the cultural significance that weaving has. Each one of these weavers brings her (or his) own personal cultural and economic circumstance to the loom and the designs flow accordingly.

As the Navajos say, “It’s up to her”!

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