Earth Notes: Rare Navajo Blanket

Dec 27, 2017

An unusually beautiful, very old textile resides in the collections of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. It’s a rare, antique blanket woven in New Mexico before 1870, in what’s called the “Classic Period” of Navajo weaving.

Rare Navajo blanket
Credit Museum of Northern Arizona

The age and fragile condition require that the blanket be handled with utmost care. A conservator at MNA’s Easton Collection Center is stabilizing the piece, going through a careful step-by-step process—cleaning, documenting and photographing, orienting and filling in yarn as needed, repairing a loose tassel, and finally documenting it again at the end of the treatment.

Why go to all this bother? Because there are several questions to try to answer. For example, what type of yarn and cotton were used, and what was the origin of the dyes that produced the once-vivid reds, blues, and greens? Why did the weaver use a mix of handspun and commercial wool yarns? How did the dyes and cotton come into the hands of Navajo weavers? Was the weaver captured by Mexicans and forced to work for the captors’ profit? Was the blanket made for trade in the days of the Santa Fe Trail? Or was it intended for domestic use—possibly as a finely made serape. 

The painstaking conservation efforts, funded by a grant from the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association Foundation, may help tease out some of these intriguing questions.