Weaving: From String to Rugs

String: A New Industry

The Hisatsonim (Ancient Ones) invented string independently in the New World about 1200 years ago. The pattern is always two, four, or eight strands. European cordage is always odd-numbered.

Plant fibers from yucca leaves, willow bark, juniper root bark, and cotton were first twisted between hand and thigh. Wild hemp was used, but not lately! Animal sinew and dog hair made bindings that were both strong and decorative.

Rabbit fur and yucca string made a cord one inch thick. A skilled worker showed only the fur on the outside and it was soft to the touch, yet very strong. Hisatsonim and Pueblos have made this all through their history and Hopi men make them today.

The Hisatsonim began making turkey-feather cordage between 500 and 700 A.D. At this time these Ancient Ones were living in pit houses built inside the huge caves of the area. The tame birds of today are not suitable, but what is now called "Miriam's turkey" is still found at Mesa Verde.

Buffalo hair was only available by trading cornmeal; Hisatsinom women were "encouraged" to grow hair to the length of 18 inches. This was harvested by the husband to save the cornmeal.

In the 1890's the men at Zuni Pueblo spun milkweed string. The seeds - with down attached - were removed from the pods and laid out on a bed of white sand. A thin, flexible forked stick was used to whip the fibers loose. This process was also used to spin cotton.

The next development was the making of nets, and this progressed to finger plaiting, and then to the weaving of cloth.

Weaving In The New World

The first simple loom was a pattern of pegs in the ground and must have been a back-breaking job. About 750 A.D. some Hisatsinom artisan picked the "loom" up to hang it by the top and a new cave industry was born. Though they wove blankets, they only wore sandals. How anybody knows this, I don't know.

The vertical loom may have been introduced by peoples from the south, possibly the Hohokam or Mogollan. More research has shown a much closer relationship than to call them separate peoples. Modern Mexican weavers use horizontal looms, which shows that the origin of their method is Europe. Or that two different people had the same idea.

The increased tension that is accomplished by a vertical loom is the reason for the superior quality of the Navajo rugs today. This technique has been passed down and it is a traditional family affair.

During the first program of stock reduction the U.S. Government thinned out the old sheep, thinking the young were superior. This set the rug industry back a tad.

You may be interested in reading the story of the Churro sheep.

Native Dyes

OK. You want a truly authentic Navajo rug, but you're a do-it-yourselfer. By definition this is not going to work, but . . .

You've got your sheep and sheared them - Churro of course - because those are the only real sheep. And you've moved to the High Desert because that is the only place to gather these dye ingredients. And you are willing to work for a year to gather the plants, bark, and other raw materials.

Since many plants must be used fresh we begin now to save our dried ingredients. Here's your schedule - let's hop to it.

These may be gathered at any time. These must be fresh.

Talk about scratching to start!

Churro: Real Sheep

According to history Francisco Vasquez de Coronado brought the churro sheep from Southern Spain in 1540. In 1598 Juan de Onate brought 5,000 more sheep, with many black among them.

The Navajo say that the goddess White Bead gave them sheep for the prosperity of the Dine'. I see no conflict there. Before this most weaving was from cotton.

The Navajo indeed used their blessing; weavings from the churro wool actually glisten and are of a high quality. To preserve this uniqueness the Navajo did not allow crossing of their sheep with the merino of Mexico.

At the peak there were about two million sheep in New Mexico, but this was not to be allowed.

Kit Carson was in charge of an exuberant crusade in the 1860's to subjugate the Navajo and left them with few sheep. (I would like to insert here that some reports say that Kit Carson did this "reluctantly.") But it was done, and then came The Long Walk to Bosque Redondo in 1863-64, but before being forced to leave some of the Navajo hid their sheep in Canyon de Chelly.

The Treaty of 1868 provided over 35,000 sheep - probably Kentucky Cotswalds - to the Navajo, but in the early 1900's Federal grazing policies called for the killing of two-thirds of the Navajo churros.

During the 1930's a government that couldn't help itself decided to help the Navajo again; a decision to fix something that was beginning to recover.

In 1932 a prize Dorset ram was brought in to improve the Navajo flocks, then in 1934 a type of French merino sheep, the Rambouilett, was tried because of its hardiness. The results were poor quality weaving caused by tight curls, knots, and the greasiness of the fleece.

Many strains were tried: Corriedale, Hampshire black-face, and Lincoln among the attempts. There were experiments with Angora goat hair. The conclusion was that the unimproved old stock was the best.

The churro is an unusual sheep. The rams have four horns, the ewes have strong maternal instincts, and the lambs have a high rate of survival. Twins are common. and often there are triplets born. Though churro is Spanish for coarse the sheep are long-fleeced, and the wool is fine and low in oil.

Dr. Lyle McNeal of the Department of Animal, Dairy, and Veterinary Science at Utah State University in Logan, Utah rediscovered the churro at a shearing school in Shiprock, NM in 1977. He became concerned that they were facing extinction, and so began the Navajo Churro Sheep Project. They are getting it right this time.

McNeal acquired six ewes and two rams from the USDA's Southwestern Sheep Breeding Laboratory in Fort Wingate, a project that had been established in 1934. To build the flock, McNeal searched the canyons for the descendants of the sheep the Navajo had released back in 1863.

A project of the Colorado State University put churro on graze at Hesperus, CO, which is 50 miles north of Farmington. The area had been overgrown with oak brush and the sheep grazed the brush to the extent that the grasses grew again.

Ben Hatch, a student of McNeal at Utah State University from 1983-85, became interested in McNeal's work in sustainable agriculture. As chairman of the board of the Navajo Sheep Project, Hatch is working toward the goal of helping the Navajo keep their values and culture. This became a three state project: Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Some of the people on the Advisory Council of the project for the re-establishment of the churro are: Robert Redford; Ronald Malouf, president and CEO of Malouf Co., Inc.; and John Ernst, president and CEO of Bloomingdale Properties in New York.

Navajo Rugs: They Don't Make as Many Like They Used To.

You can tell an authentic Navajo rug - but you can't tell 'em as much - or as often.

Times have changed for the Dineh. The rule that all rugs were made with wool
from Churro sheep sheep that were part of the family is now an exception, and rugs from that previous era are highly prized. There are still weavers of this time that follow the old ways.

There are some Navajo weavings from the 1700's, but the new era begins after
The Long Walk. In 1863-64 the People were force-marched to eastern NM, and were imprisoned at an army base near Fort Sumner, NM. They were returned in 1868, and a reservation of 26,000 square miles was established in 1878. Local traders created a demand for Navajo rugs and blankets, and so it is today.

The first rugs were woven from unprocessed wool, which retained the natural lanolin. This could be felt by the handling of the rug. That is not as common now. In many cases the already processed wool is purchased from the same trader who will sell the rug for the weaver. But the authenticity is still easily detected by the tightness of the weave, done on a vertical loom, and they are still of high quality.

Another indication of the true Navajo rug is the number and pattern of the strands. The Navajo rug is twined with double yarn. There are no fringes on the Navajo rug; sometimes clever copies show no fringes because they are woven back into the edges. Careful examination will reveal a ridge along the bottom edge where the fringes are hidden.


  1. Position rug vertically.
  2. Examine top and bottom: Slide yarn apart about 1 inch from top and bottom. Alternate triple and single warps which end in fringe indicate that the weaving is Mexican; it has been done on a horizontal loom and several rugs have been done in one run. The fringe is caused by the loose ends have been cut apart in this mass production method. If there is no fringe grip the rug at the bottom and run your thumb across that edge. The fringe may have been turned back and woven into the pattern.
  3. Examine sides: Slide yarn apart at edges. If the first 2 or 3 warps are multiple strands the rug is probably Mexican. Navajo weavers use side cords, copies do not.
  4. Feel: A Navajo rug is tightly packed and has a heavier and stiffer feel. The Mexican rug will have a looser, smoother, floppy feel.
  5. Color: A Mexican rug is uniform in color. Navajo rugs often are uneven in color because the dyes are natural and the dying is done in small batches.
  6. Smell: A Navajo weaving may often have a sheep odor. This tells you that you have a very real Navajo rug.

Churro Sheep Navajo Churro Sheep Project Handweavers Convention 1998
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