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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Spinning and Carding, Keeping Navajo Arts Alive


by Brenda Norrell / Southwest Staff Reporter / Indian Country Today


credits: photo: Irma Henderson, Navajo, demonstrated spinning with a drop spindle at the ‘Sheep is Life Celebration’ at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz. (Brenda Norrell / Indian Country Today)


Irma Henderson, Navajo, demonstrated spinning with a drop spindle at the ‘Sheep is Life Celebration’ at Diné College in Tsaile, Ariz. (Brenda Norrell / Indian Country Today)TSAILE, Ariz. - Beneath the shady arbor on the campus of Diné College, Sarah Natani demonstrated the art of carding and spinning wool, while her sister Irma Henderson instructed students in the art of drop spinning wool from her own herd of Churro sheep over the mountain at Two Grey Hills, N.M.

Henderson, whose day job is as a psychiatric health worker for Indian Health Service, has found the benefits of spinning.

"It is relaxing, I get really stressed by my work, and so I come home and spin for hours. It is really stress releasing. It helps process things when you are spinning," said Henderson, as she stretched a cord of wool and wrapped it around the wooden spindle.

Henderson begins the process each year in the spring, shearing her herd of Churro sheep in April and May.

"You take all the foreign matter out from the wool and dry it, to get it ready to wash," she said. For Two Grey Hills Trading Post yarns, Henderson has the wool washed and carded into loose ropes at a wool mill. Natural colors of brown, grey and tan - the colors of traditional Two Grey Hills tapestries and rugs - are sold to weavers at the trading post.

Far from the hurry of the world, students sat calmly beneath the shade on a hot summer day in June and patiently spun wool into yarn for weaving. They are students at the "Sheep is Life Celebration," which offers classes in carding, spinning and weaving, and even a class to write about it.

In the spinning class, be-neath the shade, there is the traditional Navajo spindle, placed on the ground next to the seated spinner, and the drop spindle, which is dropped from the hand while the yarn is spinning.

While many Navajos weave with traditional and contemporary patterns, few continue the art of carding and spinning wool from their own sheep. But in areas like Two Grey Hills, N.M. and the western Navajo region of Tuba City and Shonto in Arizona, it is being kept alive. The preferred wool is from the Churro sheep, known as the ancient and traditional sheep of Navajos.

"To maintain the integrity of the work, the wool needs to be from the Churro sheep," said Henderson’s husband, Les Wilson, a trader at Two Grey Hills Trading Post for 21 years and married to Irma for 12 years.

"Part of our job at the trading post is to make sure it does not disappear," Wilson said.

Henderson said the drop spinning method came to Navajos from South America. "A lot of people in South America spin as they herd sheep and do other things."

In this class for beginners, Henderson has added a modern element to the spinning process. A used compact disc is placed on a wooden rod for the spindle, offering learners a less expensive spindle than the wooden spindle.

"You can drop it as much as you want and it won’t break," Henderson said.

Learning the traditional Navajo method of spinning from Henderson’s sister, Sarah Natani, is Zuni Ishikawa from Japan. Ishikawa said she became interested in weaving during her travels through Japan while in her 20s and later learned weaving at Big Mountain.

In Japan, she watched as hemp and silk were spun for weaving. Here, she finds the secret to spinning.

"It is good for the heart and mind, to clean up myself. It is healing." She said that spinning is addictive, in a non-harmful way.

"It puts your mind at peace."

While demonstrating spinning and carding, Natani offered advice on washing the fresh sheared wool.

"When you wash the wool, leave some grease on it," she said as she demonstrated carding the sheared fleece into wool that was smooth for carding.

"Don’t handle it too much or it will get mad at you."

Students find that it only looks simple.

"It takes a lot of practice," said Natani, who has taught her craft in Rome, Italy, and been the special guest at a weaving exhibit in China. Natani, of Sanostee, N.M., teaches weaving at Diné College in Shiprock, N.M.

"A lot of students want to start learning from scratch," Natani said, adding that it takes about a year of practice to learn spinning. She said the basics of traditional weaving could be learned in her one-week course.

Howard Sky of Phoenix, seated and spinning in the traditional Navajo way, said the workshops also offer a way to make new friends. "I’m enjoying the company of all these fine fiber artists. There are wonderful people here."

Watching the spinning and carding beneath the shade was Millie Allen, Navajo from nearby Upper Wheatfields, who like many Navajos wants to recapture the craft of her childhood.

"I’m interested in weaving, processing wool and making yarns. I remember my grandmother used to raise sheep and goats. She never went to the store to buy her wool," Allen said.

Seated nearby was her mother, Mae Tohee’dliinii. Allen said, "I asked her if she could give me her old cards."

"Sheep is Life Workshops," held June 21 - 24 at Diné College, included Bertha Chee’s weaving class, with braided, diamond and changing heddle styles of twill weaving taught as family stories were shared.

Sarah Natani’s weaving students learned how to warp a loom, weave stripes and a design using the vertical interlock method. Natani shared Navajo regional designs, natural plant dyes, dynamics of spinning wool using the "S" and "Z" twist, spinning Navajo 3-ply method, Navajo twill weavings and Navajo creation stories.

Henderson also taught students to spin fiber using a spinning wheel and how to put spun fiber into skeins using a Niddy Noddy, made from PVC tubes.

Traditional Navajo dyeing of yarn was taught by Isabel Deschinny, daughter of the late Mabel Burnside who created a dye chart of natural plants used in Navajo weaving, which became a popular collector’s item. Deschinny uses only plants, natural mordants and water to make her yarn dyes. Only a few Navajos continue to collect plants and use natural dyes to color yarn for weaving.

"From Sheep to Story: How to Weave Personal Experience Stories", was the unique class encouraging everyone to tell their own stories, with the admonition that everyone has a story to tell. Rebecca Lynn Cross and Sally E. Said offered the class in an effort to preserve the stories and lifeways using a method developed at Diné College. One of the suggested topics for writing was, "When I learned to herd sheep." The stories were printed and shared.

For information on future workshops, contact Roy Kady or Racheal Dahozy at (928) 871-4991 or visit

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