The Fascinating History of Navajo Rugs: The different periods of Navajo Weavings

Photo ©Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection 1904


From the inception of Navajo weaving around 1700, weaving has provided an important economic benefit to the Navajo tribe and a fine outlet for their artistic talents. Today, Navajo rugs are made in the weaver's home or hogan on vertical looms using the same methods they have mastered for over three hundred years. Without pencil and paper or outlines, Navajo weavers' minds unfold complex designs in their wool rugs. Since 1976, Garland's has worked closely with top Navajo weavers and collected valuable antique weavings. While we are now receiving less quantity of weaving than in the past, the quality is the finest it has ever been. Read on to learn about the fascinating historical evolution of this beautiful, time-intensive artwork.


Classic Period (1700 - 1865)

The Classic period includes early Navajo blankets that used mostly natural wool colors and accents of natural dyes such as indigo blue. Classic First-Phase Chief Blankets are extremely rare today, and very few of these weavings are in good condition. These coveted blankets can sell for well over one million dollars. They are known for their simple striped design, using broad black/brown, blue (indigo), and white horizontal bands.

Late Classic Period (1865 - 1885)second-phase-chief-blanket 

The weaving above is a beautiful example of a Late Classic Second-Phase Chief Blanket. The Late Classic period includes Second-Phase Chief Blankets and Third-Phase Chief Blankets and Serapes. Serapes are woven vertically and are narrower than they are tall, whereas Chief Blankets are wider than they are tall. Most weavings today are woven similar to a Serape. This Late Classic period featured more experimentation in design and pattern, beginning with Second-Phase blankets adding a bit more detail to the simple banded design. Third-Phase blankets became known for their terraced diamonds and symmetrical angles. During this period, the Navajo traded for bolts of red fabric from Europe (called bayeta in Spanish) and American flannel. The weavers unraveled the red fabric, re-spun the threads, and used them in combinations with natural wool. Additionally, red cochineal dye (from dried insects), as well as the introduction of aniline (chemical) dyes offered other forms of color. The weaving below is a Late Classic Third-Phase Chief Blanket. This blanket dates to 1875 and features Piano Key designs in natural homespun white and black (dark brown) wool. Dyes used include indigo blue and three sources of red bayeta. 

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The weaving below is a 1875-1880 Moki Serape, which places it within the Late Classic Period. The Moki aspect of this serape is the blue (indigo dye) and black stripes. The "Moki" style was introduced by the Spanish and adopted by the Navajos. Indigo dye is rare and it never fades, which is why the blue is still so vibrant and striking. The red in this serape is called Raveled Flannel. At this time, the weaver did not have access to bright aniline dyes to get this red color. However, she was able to purchase bolts of red cloth that were coming over on boats from Europe and then on the Santa Fe railroad to the Southwest. She unraveled the cloth and then re-spun it into a red yarn that she incorporated into her weaving. Such rare pieces are fascinating windows into time! Learn more about the Moki style here.

Transitional Period (1880 - 1900)

During this period, Navajo blankets continue to be woven, including serape designs and chief blankets. In the 1880s, the trains made their way out to the West with trade goods, including machine woven blankets. These blankets were warm and much cheaper than the hand woven Navajo blankets. Even the Navajos started wearing these blankets, and the demand for the hand-woven Navajo blankets decreased. However, early traders began to bring tourists out who purchased these blankets to use as floor, bed, and wall coverings. This changed the intention of weaving from blankets to bed coverings, floor rugs, and wall hangings. Transitional weavings are still very soft as the weavers were still used to weaving blankets.

Above is a great 1890s transitional weaving, ideally hung as a wall piece. It features all the bright aniline dyes, and there is no defined border yet, as this is before the rug period. These transitional weavings from the 1890s are very collectible. Their designs are a continuation of the blanket designs woven in the same soft, long staple churro wool that was introduced by the Spanish. Also, this was the advent of the beautiful bright aniline dyes, so the weavers made rugs full of bright, beautiful colors that are unique to this period.

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Germantown Weavings

Because this period involved aniline (chemical) dyes brought over on the railroads, there was an explosion in new colorful designs using these aniline dyes. This was also the period (around 1875) that brightly colored machine-woven Germantown yarn was first brought over from Pennsylvania to the Southwest on the Santa Fe railroad. This period only lasted from 1875-1900, and the rugs from this time are very collectible. The rug above is a fantastic example of a Germantown rug in great condition. Read more about Germantowns here

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Rug Period (1900 - 1930)

This is the period where non-native traders and trading post owners began to encourage weavers to make actual floor rugs with defined outer borders. They knew there was a demand for floor pieces, especially from tourists from the midwest and east coast. This caused a distinct shift from the designs of wearable blankets that the Navajos had always woven in the past and the new true floor rug weavings that emerged. Sometimes the Navajos would leave a line (called a spirit line) that breaks through the border. The rug above is a 1920s J.B. Moore Crystal with rich colors and crisp designs.

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Regional Style Period (1930 - Today)

At this point, the different regional areas on the Navajo reservation began to develop distinct styles. For example, Lorenzo Hubble at the Ganado trading post loved red backgrounds in rugs. The weavers in that area knew they had the best chance of selling their rug if they wove a red background into their weaving. Over time, this style began to be known as "Ganado Red". It's a weaving with a central diamond design and a red background, as seen in the gorgeous rug above by Betty Ann Nez. Similarly, other trading post owners had various preferences that directed the style of that regional area. The trading post owner near Two Grey Hills preferred rugs with all natural wool colors and no chemical dyes. The trader near Teec Nos Pos liked Persian weavings and introduced photos of Persian rugs to the weavers in that area. To this day, Teec Nos Pos weavings have strong design themes similar to Middle Eastern rug designs.

Even in the 1930s and 1940s, most of these weavers traveled by horse or wagon, so they would only be able to sell rugs to the nearest trading post. This meant they adopted the style from the nearby trading post and passed on the style to the next generations. Because of this, even to this day, when a weaver is from the Two Grey Hills area, she will most likely specialize in Two Grey Hills style weavings. 

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    • Shelley June 7, 2021 at 8:46 am

      Thank-You for All of the fascinating-info about Navajo-blankets/rugs, and the history of their design-evolution — as-well as the names of Individual Weaver/Artists; and photos of the different-genres, styles and designs!
      …(Amazing and Stunningly-Beautiful!!!)

      I’m So-Glad that this rich, ancient art-form is still-being practiced, taught, sold and appreciated — and that this invaluable-piece of the Navajo-People’s Traditions alive!!!

    • James R Patterson March 30, 2020 at 10:57 am

      I so enjoyed stopping by Garland’s about 2:15 pm today. Walk in beauty. I hope to see you again

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