August 15, 2013
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
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.
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
"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."
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."