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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Dyeing To Learn Women Teach Weaving From Wool To Rug
by Shine Salt - Navajo Times
credits: photos by Shine Salt - Navajo Times

August 15, 2013
WINDOW ROCK, AZ — On a plateau near Fort Defiance that felt like the top of the world, students and a teacher gathered sagebrush and lichen to dye wool.

It was once a common sight, but these days few weavers gather plants for natural dye.

"You don't need more than what you need," cautioned Mary Walker, a bilagáana weaving instructor for the weaving class. "That's greedy."

The 10 students arrived at Quality Inn in Window Rock on Saturday and Mary James, from Washington State, immediately started planning colors for her first rug.

"Coming down on the train from Albuquerque I saw the colors out of the window and I originally got the idea to use those types of colors," said James. "Then we were in the gift shop and I saw a postcard of Canyon De Chelly."

Incorporating different shades of green, brown and yellow, James found her inspiration from the picture of the canyon and began to weave Sunday morning after building her warp.

As the Navajo instructor of the class, Jennie Slick from Houck, Ariz. said she wanted to help Walker because she didn't want to keep the teachings of weaving to herself.

"I'd rather share it because when I was learning I had to look up to my mom to show me how to weave," Slick said. "So why can't I share what I've learned? I feel good that the people around me are learning some of my teachings."

The two instructors have been working together for 14 years and they first started a weaving class under an art school. They then created their own class called "Weaving in Beauty: A Textile Tour" where they have been teaching both non-Indians and Navajos the fundamentals of weaving.

"We want to see Navajo weaving continue to develop as fine art like weavers who show their work in galleries," Walker said. "We want the young people of the Navajo Nation to reclaim and look at weaving as something they can do and try to keep in the Navajo culture."

At the same time Slick is teaching, she is also learning new patterns to incorporate into her weaving, like the interlock and the two-face saddle stitch.

Niccole Cerveny of Tempe, who has participated in the class for four years, challenged herself with the two-face saddle weaving this year.

Cerveny, a geography teacher, said she wanted to do the saddle rug for her 14-year-old niece who rides horses. As her inspiration for colors, Cerveny bought earrings that had the colors orange, green, turquoise, purple and coral.

"The rug is a bit thicker so it'll last longer under the saddle and the front and back designs are different," Cerveny said with a smile. "It's a little challenging to keep them straight, especially since you can't see the backside without getting up and having to look at it."

Reminiscing about her first rug, Walker laughed as she recalled warping the loom was difficult and keeping her sides from tugging inward was hard. Like Walker, Cerveny said she was pleased with the challenge of weaving her first rug.

"I don't think I'll ever look at a Navajo rug the same again," said Cerveny. "You pick up one and you marvel at it by how much skills and time it took to make one, especially after you try to make one yourself."

As the days continued, the non-Indian students were able to tour the Navajo Nation and James got to view Canyon De Chelly in person.

"It was a magnificent experience," James said. "For me to actually see closely how the plants and the soil, the cliffs and what grows out of the cliffs with colors, are what inspired me."

Before the participants' week-long weaving class ended, they learned to dye wool with the help of other Navajo weavers.

The sagebrush, Navajo tea, lichen and dried wild carrots were each put into a pot to boil. Off on the side, wool was being washed with dish soap, and then rinsed off and put into the boiling water.

After close to an hour, the sagebrush turned the wool into a yellow color, wild carrots to a burnt orange, Navajo Tea to a light orange and lichen to copper.

Students exclaimed over the beautiful, natural hues.

After re-cleaning the newly dyed wool twice, it was shaken and hung to dry.

"With a weaving comb you're not only putting a design together, but you're also chasing away the evil spirits of poverty," Walker recalled a Navajo weaver saying to her. "When she said 'poverty,' she wasn't just talking about lack of money or things. She was talking about lack of things that make life good."

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