ca. 1875 – (transition period)
United States: Southwest
Materials: Wool, artificial and natural plant dyes
Navajo saddleblankets such as the woven one pictured above were commonly used among the Navajo people for every day use as well as for trading and selling. Navajo saddleblankets became popular in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Each saddleblanket depicts a woven pattern of different colors, shapes, and figures. This particular saddleblanket depicts a pattern of horizontal bands with alternating white bands. Each colored band is composed of small diamonds woven of cream, dark brown, light brown, and some gray. The saddleblanket is woven from wool.
The patterns found in the Navajo saddleblankets are unique to each family of weavers. The patterns on saddleblankets have specific meanings, and more often than not, they are selected by the weaver for a particular purpose. The practice of weaving saddleblankets has grown throughout the Navajo nation during the past century. Traditionally, the saddleblankets are hand woven from Churro Sheep wool. The Churro sheep were brought over to the United States by Spaniards roughly 400 years ago and the Navajo bred them for their wool. The weaving proccess begins with the shearing of the sheep by hand and the collection of the wool. Once the wool is sheared, it is hand carded and homespun. The spun wool is collected on spools and then dyed using dyes from natural plants and artificial dyes. It is then loaded onto the loom and woven into the chosen pattern. Clara Sherman, a Navajo woman, explains in this video how each step in the weaving process is done.
Orignially considered a woman’s craft, the weaving of saddleblankets has since become a tradition of the family. Today, men, women, and children weave and dye saddleblankets. Weaving is not considered a chore but an honor. The production of woven blankets are unique to families and the techniques are passed down through generations. When a female is unable to continue or teach the family weaving, a male will step in to take her place. Though the saddleblankets were originally woven for home use, the Navajo began selling and trading their blankets. Now, these woven saddleblankets are sold all over the United States in Native American trading posts. Despite the large demand for Navajo saddleblankets, saddleblankets continue to be produced in the traditional manner– handsheared, homespun, handcarded, handdyed and finally handwoven.