Antique Navaho Blankets Bring Top Prices

By Barry Krause
   The Navaho developed blanket weaving skills to the highest degree of excellence with their beautiful work with sheep’s wool in the historic period after contact with European immigrants.
   Wool was unknown to American Indians in Arizona and New Mexico until the Spaniards brought sheep there in the 16th century. The Pueblo tribes did their best with weaving cotton clothing in pre-Columbian times, but it was the Navahos who achieved what is widely regarded as the finest quality in blankets woven by American Indians.
   This happened after the Navahos learned how to weave from their Pueblo neighbors, according to some scholars. We hear old tales of Navaho raids to steal sheep, horses and cattle from the Pueblos, Spaniards and Mexicans. Even the Pueblo women and children were sometimes kidnapped by Navaho raiding parties, and we can imagine them learning how to weave from their captors.
   However, in those days, it is believed that the men did most of the weaving in the Pueblo communities, while the women wove in Navaho settlements. Those Navaho women soon got the reputation as the best blanket weavers in the entire world, and an inspection of surviving antique blankets from them can verify this if we know what to look for.
   In his “Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas and New Mexico,” published in 1854, John Russell Bartlett described how he witnessed Navahos with “woolen blankets of their own manufacture, which they used to cover their bodies when it was cold, as well as for saddle cloths. These blankets are superior to any native fabric I have ever seen…”
   As the 19th century drew to a close, those superior grade native Navaho blankets became very rare, as the Navahos were induced by blanket traders to make blankets faster and cheaper to sell for quick profits.
   Dr. Charles F. Lummis, writing at the turn of the century back then, explained how the rare old bayeta blankets made famous by 19th century Navaho weavers were constructed from good red cloth acquired in trade from European factories, then unwound, respun, and woven into fine blankets of their own design with quality such as “never have been produced elsewhere. Their durability is wonderful. They never fade, no matter how frequently washed … As for wear, I have seen the latter blankets which have been used for rugs on the floors of populous Mexican houses for fifty years, which still retain their brilliant color, and show serious wear only at their broken edges. And they will hold water as well as canvas will.”
   You won’t find blankets like that for sale at $10 each at the tacky roadside tourist shops in Arizona and New Mexico today, but it is still possible to buy a modern Navaho blanket of better than average quality “in the old style” of design and weaving, from the best dealers in Native American goods, but expect to pay a four figure price.
   Look for an all-wool blanket with fine, tightly woven yarn. The design should be traditional and pleasing, and the only way to know that is to study a lot of blankets in dealer’s shops and pictured in reliable guidebooks.
   In the old days, the Navaho weaver made her blanket designs inspired by nature, her religion and culture, and many experts say that the most talented weavers never made two blankets with the same design.
   Judith Miller’s “Antiques Price Guide” for 2006 lists some wonderful antique Navaho blankets with color photos and current retail prices, and I recommend looking at it to get an idea of what can be bought today.    The most expensive blanket in Miller’s guidebook is an early 1860s classic period “man’s serape Navaho slave blanket,” 78 by 48 inches, priced in the $60,000 to $80,000 range.
   But many blankets are more affordable from that era. Miller mentions a lovely early 19th century regional blanket, Navaho, made with natural and commercially dyed homespun wool, with “crosses and whirling log devices” but also with “minor wool loss,” 63 -by 45 inches, for $1,200 to $1,800.
   Native Navaho sheep’s wool was naturally colored black, white, brown and gray, therefore the early undyed Navaho woolen blankets and clothing had to be of these colors.
   Eventually, the Navaho learned how to use natural vegetable and mineral dyes to “enhance” (deepen) these shades, and add other colors as well. Such old Navaho “native wool, native dyed, native woven” blankets are prized today as the best specimens found mostly in museums and in private collections of value.
   Red is the color of life-giving sunshine, to the Navaho weaver who has often used red-dyed wool for blanket designs. “Red on a black or dark background suggests sunlight on the back of a cloud, and on some of the masks used in sacred dances borders are made of feathers of red-tailed woodpeckers to represent rays of sunlight streaming out at the edge of a cloud,” said George Wharton James in his book, “Indian Blankets and Their Makers,” first published in 1914 and reprinted since then.
   Beginning collectors of Navaho blankets can be fooled into believing that a precious old blanket is worthless because it “looks faded in color,” when, in fact, it has simply “toned down” over the years to, for example, a soft rose shade from an original red color, and is much admired by those who understand its age and rarity today.
   Later blankets made with aniline dyes were often junk, and not worth collecting today in the eyes of discriminating collectors.
   Fred Harvey kept his great American Indian collections at Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Hopi House at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but he also hired skilled Indian weavers to make quality blankets to sell to the public at his stores at depots along the Santa Fe Railway. Such blankets are collectible today, as they were generally made with the best available materials then.
   So, we don’t ignore nice 20th century Navaho blankets, as many of these have value, too. Miller shows us a handsome Navaho pictorial weaving, 81 by 47 inches in dimensions, made of “natural and commercially dyed homespun wool,” with depictions of a central cornstalk, cows, horses and lizards “on a variegated ground, with a large geometric border,” and valued today at between $8,000 and $12,000, made circa 1930.
   You won’t find blankets like that at roadside swap meets for bargain prices if their vendors know what they are, but you can find them for sale in upscale Native American crafts stores, priced appropriately to account for workmanship expertise, appeal of design, state of preservation and market demand.
   The word “Navaho” is also spelled with a “j” as “Navajo,” Spanish style, and there are arguments for and against both spellings, even among the Navaho themselves.
Sam, can  you use the pg. 8 pdf for the picture of the Navajo blankets?

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