American Indian
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Artist Unknown (American, Navajo, 19th century),
Serape , ca. 1870–75
wool, 70 x 51 inches, 177.8 x 129.54 cm
Gift of Mrs. A. H. Richardson, 1956.90

In the Navajo origin myth, "Spider Woman instructed the Navajo women how to weave on a loom which Spider Man told them how to make. The crosspoles were made of sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, the healds [huddles] of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo, white shell made the comb. There were four spindles: one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal; one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth, and its whorl was white shell."

Scholars, citing archaeological and other historical evidence, say that the Navajo may have learned to weave from their Pueblo neighbors in the Southwest about three hundred years ago; the earliest extant Navajo examples closely resemble classic, relatively plain Pueblo textiles. Possibly because this was a new endeavor for them, the Navajo rapidly began to experiment with patterns and materials. Design elements were borrowed from Mexican blankets and reworked to please the Navajo eye. New dyes were eagerly sought after, as were commercial yarns in a wide variety of colors. Until about 1880 most Navajo loom production was for tribal consumption — dresses and blankets for wearing, bedding, and saddle use. When commercial goods became widely available, their need for hand-woven items lessened. The outside market for Navajo weaving, however, expanded enormously, and reservation traders began to encourage the production of heavier products. The transition from blanket to rug was swift. Navajo rugs and tapestries, historic and contemporary, have become one of the most avidly collected of all Native American art forms.

The Navajo serape, worn around the shoulders, was described by an early observer as "the universal type garment of the Navajo." Bold in color and design, they include many of the most appealing of nineteenth-century textiles. This one, collected by U.S. Army Captain John G. Bourke, probably not long after it was woven, is particularly striking with its diamond lattice and bi-color crosses. The white is that of the natural wool, the green probably from a yellow plant dye combined with indigo, and the red likely a yarn painstakingly respun from raveled, imported scarlet cloth.

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