According to the Navajo, the world was woven into existence by a female deity named Spider Woman. Many traditional weavers pray to this female spirit. Because the weavers put their whole soul or spirit into the textile, some weave a little line to the edge of the textile called a Spirit Release Line. A vast literature exists on their legends and stories that span the centuries.
Archaeologists have found fragments of weavings that have been scientifically dated as many thousands of years old. The exact date of the earliest known weavings in the western hemisphere is still being debated, but may be over 10,000 years ago. Weavings were made long before the advent of looms.
Native weaving materials included plant and animal fibers. Some materials were collected and used in their natural forms, but most were made stronger by spinning multiple fibers together like yarn. Designs were created by dying the yarns different colors or by using two or more different fibers to make patterns. Relief designs also were created by mathematically calculating the sequences of fibers to go over or under, as in twill plaiting. Some very sophisticated ancient weavings preserved in caves have survived nearly intact. After the advent of pottery, some weavings were kept sealed and found in nearly perfect condition.
The longest, continuous weaving traditions have survived in certain cultures throughout the western hemisphere. In North America, the Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande pueblos maintain a 2,000-year-old weaving tradition. Before the coming of the Spanish conquistadors, Pueblo weavers clothed hundreds of thousands of people in the American Southwest. Their favorite fiber was cotton grown from seeds developed in southern Mexico. Traditional ceremonies accompanied the planting, tending, harvesting, processing, and weaving of cotton.
One type of ceremonial sash belt, woven in a technique called float warp, is created from Taos Pueblo in the north, through Mexico and Central America, to the tip of South America. Ancient weaving traditions have survived, especially among the Zapotec in Mexico, the Mayans in Guatemala, and the Andean weavers of Peru and Bolivia, where some of the most sophisticated hand weavings in the world were developed. The thread count on the finest wearing blankets tops 200 stitches per inch. Their pictorial designs are narrative scenes from legends and tribal traditions that help illustrate rich and varied cultural histories.
Great textiles sometimes emerged even during times of great turmoil or revolution. In the 1680s, when the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest were fighting for their freedom and independence from the Spanish, a group of Navajo women married Pueblo men, who taught their wives to weave. Thus the Navajo textile tradition was given a tremendous boost, because the ancient techniques spread quickly through matrilineal family lines. Eventually over 10,000 Navajo weavers, mostly women, developed dynamic weavings on a vertical loom using wool from Spanish Churro or Moreno sheep.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, perhaps no other tribe promoted textiles as fine art more than the Navajo. From the 1850s, a First Phase Chief's Blanket was one of the most highly valued items. Woven so fine it would repel water, this Navajo wearing blanket became increasingly more complex in color and design. Eye-dazzling serrated diamonds and zigzag patterns became popular. Their yarns were dyed of indigo blue, and reds of cochineal.
From 1880 to 1920, the so-called Transitional Period of Navajo textiles reflected the changing times for Indians, from freedom to reservation life. The weaves became looser, except for tapestries woven of fine Germantown yarn. During the first half of the twentieth century, regional styles developed named after the local trading posts. Today, Two Grey Hills tapestries are woven over eighty stitches per inch, as fine as the best contemporary weavings in Central and South America.
Schaaf, Gregory. 2002. American Indian Textiles: 2,000 Artist Biographies. Santa Fe, NM: CIAC Press.; Whitaker, Kathleen. 2002, Southwest Textiles: Weavings of the Pueblo and Navajo. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Winter, Mark. 2004, Dances with Wool. Santa Fe, NM: Toadlena Trading Post.