Navajo textile analysis is a rewarding challange, but a difficult study to undertake because the historical period, the materials the textiles were made of, and the weaving practices of the Navajo themselves are not part of the written literature of the 1800's. Facts concerning the trade between Mexico and the Navajo with the materials made in Mexico or imported from Europe are not well documented and certainly not directly connected with a particular Navajo textile. Therefore, we have no real evidence connected to a single Navajo textile of how the yarns and dyes or other materials came to be used. This is compounded by the colonization of the Southwest by the United States after 1820 and the importation of larger quantities of trade goods and more varieties of commercial yarns, flannel or bayeta (Spanish for flannel) cloths used to ravel yarns, and dyes from Europe or the United States that came in over the Santa Fe Trail for trade to the Navajo and eventual use in their weavings. We must look to each textile carefully to find as much evidence as possible and deduce from that information what makes sense when compared to what little historical record and published literature we have on the subject.
Many scholars in the 20th century have pondered this dilemma of what we have in the form of these fantastic examples of woven art and how they came to be. Any work or comments made herein or published is done with great respect for the scholarship, time, and thought that earlier researchers invested in this subject. Early dye analysis was done by adapting medical testing equipment to the new task using a limited number of dye standards. We would have no starting point without such an extensive and well developed body of work to motivate further research. Critical analysis of the facts that are in conflict with other facts is a process or dialectic we must undertake to find resolutions to contradictions and problems. Conclusions in the literature based on stylistic or design elements, technical qualities, and results of dye, yarn, and fiber analysis from information the researcher had at the time are always being used to build upon. This process is progressive, but needs to be based on humility because it is not going to end with any single researcher’s work in the past or present that provides supporting evidence for established published information or newly discovered scientific results that contradict the literature. We are trying to fill in the historical gaps in the pre 1900 record because we have little or no direct information. The research is very interesting from the social, technological, and geopolitical development of Europe, Aisa, the United States, Mexico, and how the world in general had a dynamic impact on the Navajo culture and the creative and prolific Navajo weavers and their textile art during the 1800's.
**Note about publication in Tribal Art August 2003**
above, the first issue of conflict published from our research with the
existing literature and current understanding of Navajo weaving is the
use of cochineal to dye hand spun yarns by Navajo weavers.
“The first blanket studied (T109) features bands of narrow black or brown and indigo blue stripes (Figure 1). The pink stripes are re-carded hand spun white fibers mixed with commercial yarn fibers that were dyed with Ponceau G, a dye first patented in 1879 in Germany. Considering the time needed to get the dye from Germany into the American Southwest, This identification puts the date of the textile well into the 1880s, not the 1870s as estimated by Kent. One of the bright red yarns that were thought to be synthetic, turned out to be a Navajo hand spun yarn dyed with cochineal. This is [one of] the first time the Navajo use of cochineal has been reported on hand spun yarn. We know it is not re-carded raveled flannel or commercial yarn because it lacks the machine "kink" or twist in the fibers that is characteristic of the shorter, less manageable commercial fibers. We suspect that Navajo use of cochineal will be fairly common in the bright red hand spun material once more reds are tested (Figure 2).” The [one of] was added to make the statement more appropriate and correct.
Here is a review of some of the available literature at the time we believed the above statement to be true because of the following. The words available literature is used because the we did not have the articles by Wheat and Kent (1966) cited below at the time the article was published in Tribal Arts. We are collecting and expanding bibliography as much as possible.
We had these references:
Amsden in 1934 talked about cochineal only being used by Spanish weavers of Navajo slaves of the Spanish colonists and from his Navajo informants he could not find any evidence that the Navajo used cochineal dye on their hand spun yarns.
We did not have these references:
After further recent research cited above more information concerning the Navajo use of “possibly imported cochineal” was discovered.
In the same article the use of cochineal as a dye on hand spun yarn is not supported below.
This citation indicates Kent believed in 1966 that there was cochineal on a Navajo hand spun yarn. Wheat does not agree and declares: “I thought them to have been raveled from coarse, piece-dyed cloth, perhaps being “bayeta,” originating from Spanish looms of the Rio Grande Valley.” We see from the communication that Kent published in 1985 a letter Wheat sent to Kent in 1982- a view he originally published in 1977. It seems that Kent accepted the argument Wheat presented for the Navajo NOT using cochineal. The reason she did not include the identification of cochineal on a Navajo hand spun yarn in her book published in 1985 is possibly related to her exchange with Wheat. This controversial detail of the Navajo use of cochineal dye is a process that goes on today and established trends in the literature seen in the historical documents from 1865 that Wheat cites and from her work in 1966, to 1985 when she published the well researched survey of textiles from the School of American Research (SAR) "Navajo Weaving" 1985.
The statement “This is the first time the Navajo use of cochineal has been reported on hand spun yarn.”(Tribal Art, August 2003) is not the first time. The discovery of Kate Peck Kent’s work dating to 1966 shows she believed the Navajo used cochineal as we do now. We wish to acknowledge her efforts, not supported by her peers and the trend in data and literature analysis of her day- that Kent identified and documented a Navajo hand spun yarn dyed with cochineal for the first time in 1966. Instead, our published work is one of the first times cochineal has been identified on a Navajo hand spun yarn that supports Kent's earlier observations and scholarship.
This is a perfect example of how fluid what we think we have discovered can change when it is researched. Everything we find or is discovered needs to be compared to the sheer quantity of published material that varies or even contradicts existing trends in the literature. We need to consider the meaning of what our research results have in respect to previous research and the conclusions of various scholars, as well as this complex and little known historical period and textile art. The process goes on... Each textile is a wealth of information that teaches us more than we knew before and we have a lot to learn.
Please contact me if you have any questions or information published or otherwise that you think is researchable and relative to Navajo weaving.