To This Paper's References


           Astronomical Imagery in Navajo Weaving

                    Chris L. Wetherill

          Running title:  Astronomy & Navajo Weaving


      This paper was originally presented during Session 32
        of the 176th meeting of the American Astronomical
         Society in Albuquerque, N.M. on June 12, 1990.

      Subsequent publication was in The Astronomy Quarterly
      (vol 8, #1; pg 37, 1991), which includes an appendix
       with references to the 17 slides used to illustrate
       the lecture.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 1

The Native Americans we call the Navajo, who refer to themselves
as the Dineh (The People), live in the desert highlands of the
southern and southwestern Four Corners region.  Unlike their
Pueblo neighbors to their south and east the Navajo do not have
a religious and ceremonial life strictly based on sunwatching
and a solar calendar.  However, like most all Native Americans
they are deeply sky-conscious and more night-sky oriented, per-
haps, than any other native people of North America.  Ray Wil-
liamson has described their use of a stellar calendar and terms
the traditional Navajo dwelling, or hogan, as "truly a grand
astronomical symbol".  For more of an introduction to the Navajo
as practicing, "amateur" astronomers see the chapter on them in
his excellent book (Williamson  1984).

Like other traditional Native American People the Dineh see lit-
tle to distinguish the sacred and the secular.  The creation of
their mostly woolen textiles, and the weaves themselves, occupy
what we would consider the secular realm exclusively, playing no
part in their religious or ceremonial life.  This is most likely
a result of their having learned the basics of the weaving craft
from their Pueblo neighbors, probably the Zuni (based on gender
considerations).  This probably occurred within a few decades of
1675.  The ever inventive and resourceful Navajo women quickly
adapted their weaving to their own requirements.  Since these
people live so close to the (night) sky astronomical symbolism
is found there in abundance if one knows how and where to look.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 2

As is the case with any involved craft an understanding of its
history and evolution is essential to a full appreciation of its
place in the lives of the people concerned.  Scholars have come
to recognize three general phases of Navajo weaving.  The Clas-
sic Period (c1675 - 1863) encompasses the era of predominantly
indigenous materials and use (primarily for dress, bedding, and
saddleblankets), and designs which are simple but often grand in
their natural unpretentiousness.  It's also notable that the
weaves of this time were open-ended or borderless, extending
continuously, in principle off the actual edges of the weave to
infinity, filling all of space.  While little is known about the
first 150 years of Navajo weaving the craft was fully developed
in its essential aspects by the last decades of the Classic
Period, which many believe saw the apex in over-all quality.

Following their forced evacuation to Bosque Redondo for five
years, the Transition Period (1868 - 1895) ensues, characterized
by an explosive use of exogenous materials, colors, and design
influences, and less need for the looms' products among the Nav-
ajo themselves..  Stylistically this phase ends with the intro-
duction of straight-lined borders, signifying a capitulation to
Anglo tastes in self-contained pieces and the idea of a reserva-
tion with sharply defined boundaries.

This was also the time of the introduction to the Navajo lands
of the white "Indian trader", or economic missionary, and the

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 3

birth of the Rug Period (1895 - present).  This latter phase is
often divided into two periods: before the 1920's weavings were
mass produced for export off the reservation and the craft dete-
riorated to such an extent that a revitalization movement was
started (mostly by a second wave of Anglos coming to the reser-
vations) to encourage the weavers to once again make their craft
their own, albeit in a new context.  As a result of this revival
there are today many fine works of textile art available.

[The late Kate Peck Kent's fine book on the history of Navajo
weaving should be consulted for more information (Kent  1985).
Briefer histories can be found in Joe Ben Wheat's and Kent's
articles in (Trimble, ed.  1981).  Interestingly the authors
there break the history into just two parts separated by the
coming of the railroad to the southern parts of the reservation
in 1882.  Extensive discussions of an earlier era can be found
in (Amsden  1934) or (James 1920).  Gladys Reichard touched on
many relevant issues in writings about her apprenticeship as a
weaver on the reservation (Reichard  1934, 1936).

I've gone into the history of Navajo weaving at some length to
make two important points relating to the topic of this paper.
The first is that we don't see any obvious, blatantly astronom-
ical symbolism in the weaves of the Classic and early Transit-
ion Periods because of the secular nature of weaving and the use
of the textiles for everyday, practical purposes, not because

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 4

the Dineh are not inclined towards astronomy or even because
there's little or no connection between weaving and astronomy. 
Secondly, we don't see much astronomical symbolism in later
pieces simply because the export market, via the Anglo trader,
didn't demand it of the weavers for reasons largely external to
the Navajo themselves.  Consequently, there's an opportunity for
the development of more astronomical imagery in the weaving of
the present and future waiting to be taken advantage of, espec-
ially now that the all-purpose trader of the early reservation
days has given way to the more focused "rug" dealer and the
weavers themselves are more mobile and accessible to the con-
noisseur than even just a generation ago.

Much of the astronomy related symbolism in Navajo weaving lies
buried in the loom and in the process of weaving, known only to
the Dineh -- particularly the weavers -- and those who look be-
neath the textiles themselves.  In spite of the vast changes
which their weaving has undergone the Navajo loom itself has
changed very little in its three centuries of use, and not at
all in its essential features.

The Dineh legends tell us that Spider Woman showed the Navajo
women how to weave on a loom which Spider Man told them how to
make.  The warp, or foundation strands, stand strung in a ver-
tical plane between two crossbeams parallel to the ground as the

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 5

weaving begins.  The Dineh loom is nearly unique in being a ver-
tical loom; most others in use in the world are horizontal.  The
warp is actually a single, continuous piece of thin cord (most
always wool) looped back and forth between what will eventually
become the top and bottom ends of the weave.  The loom's princi-
pal lower crossbeam is called the Earth Beam, the upper beam the
Sky Beam.  Each is symbolically made of earth and sky cords, re-
spectively.   Since the warp is the first part of the weave to
appear on the loom the somewhat mundane act of weaving occurs in
a context where a symbolic link between the earth and the sky
has first been established.  This is an important illustration
of a common theme in the Navajo way of life, concern with the
creation and presence of a cosmic balance and harmony.

Similarly, the vertical support beams are said to be made of the
sun's rays.  There may be more than just poetic truth in this as
the sun does cause the growth of the trees used for the wood
supports.  The devices used to spread open the warp for inser-
tion of the weft (or wool yarn), called heddles, are said to be
made of sheet lightning and rock crystal.  The latter is impor-
tant because the stars are said to be made of crystals from a
fawnskin pouch owned by Black God.  Finally, the implement used
to keep open the warp as the weft is being laid in, called a
batten, is said to be a sun halo.  

In all but a small percentage of specialized weaves the warp is

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 6

covered up as the weaving progresses by the weft, which forms
the bulk of the finished weave.  The legends tell us that Spider
Woman used four spindles of weft, that being the number of car-
dinal directions, each of which the Dineh associate with a sa-
cred mountain and a sacred color.  Here the symbolism is of zig-
zag, flash, and sheet lightning, with the fourth spindle formed
of a rain streamer; there is also a mineral or a shell associa-
ted with each of the four wefts.

Even today, with many colors available to the weaver, a large
proportion of weaves can be found which have but four colors.
There is a long-standing preference among the weavers for bright
reds, used informally as something of a symbol for the ubiqui-
tous sun beating down on the colorful rocks, sands, and soils of
the Navajo country.  The colors of religious significance --
white, blue, yellow, and black for east, south, west, and north
-- have no generally corresponding meaning in any but the weaves
based on sandpaintings used in the chantway ceremonies.

The weaving in of the weft begins at the bottom and moves up to-
wards the top.  The Dineh word for weaving basically means "mov-
ing up".  Like the nearby Pueblo, the Navajo stories of their
own origin tell of a progressive movement up through previous
worlds to the present one, so weaving is not only a symbolic
journey from the earth up to the sky in the context of the way
the parts of loom are named but also an act of creation paral-

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 7

leling that of the people as a whole.

The design for the weave is traditionally carried entirely in
the weaver's head, visualized as the finished product on the
loom as weaving starts and kept in mind until the weave is done.
Most designs exhibit an orthogonally bi-bilateral symmetry in
which the right and left sides of the weave are mirror images of
each other and the top half of the piece is a reflection of the
bottom.  The exceptions to this four-directional patterning
are, interestingly, found in designs based partly or wholly on
sandpaintings used in the chantway ceremonies, and also in what
are called pictorial weaves, as well as a few others.

Since the weft is laid in perpendicularly to the warp designs
naturally lend themselves to the use of Cartesian style geomet-
rical elements such as lines, crosses, chevrons, zig-zags, tri-
angles, diamonds, and parallelograms.  The use of such figures
almost foregoes any symbolism in the way in which we might usual-
ly think.  The Navajo terms for some of these elements, little
used among the weavers themselves, show the sky and astronomical
connection.  See Figure 1.  Left off the list is the equiarmed
cross or plus-sign (+) which sometimes is called "little star".
Any of these geometrical figures can be used in a merely aes-
thetic sense simply as pleasing in and of itself and without
symbolic content -- or the individual weaver may attach her own
personal meaning.  Of course many more design elements have been

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 8

developed and can be recognized in Navajo textiles.  All but a
few can be decomposed into collections of the simpler forms.
The possible symbolic meaning of borders has been mentioned

The use of the diamond to represent a star is most clearly seen
in weaves based on sandpaintings used in the Little Star and
Great Star Chantways.  (The former commemorates the unnamed
stars and cures problems caused by star-gazing or night illness;
the latter is based on the bright, named stars and is one of the
major religious ceremonies used to dispel sickness.)  There the
diamond often occupies a central position in the design.  It's
usually outlined with hatchmarks representing starlight or it
can be filled with multi-colored small dots representing more
stars.  The pinched diamond, looking like the diffraction spiked
image of a bright star on a photo made with a reflector, is also
found abundantly in these weaves.  See the illustrations of Anna
Mae Tanner and Alberta Thomas in (Dockstader  1987) for specific

It's important to note that these weaves have never had any cer-
emonial use among the Dineh and are not sacred.  They trace
their origin to the turn of this century when a few daring
weavers started incorporating figures or elements from sand-
paintings into their rugs.  Since real sandpaintings are dis-
posed of shortly after use this development initially met with

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                          Page 9

much resistance among the Dineh: the symbols themselves have
power which can be used for good or for evil, and which properly
belong only in the hands of the Singer.

The Yei, or Holy People, are divinities which first appeared in
rugs as single or paired human-like figures.  The Yei rugs fre-
quently have a protecting Rainbow Divinity figure bordering the
Yei on three sides like a "|_|".  This androgynous being, which
also is derived from sandpaintings, is symbolically significant
for having its legs -- represented by one of the vertical sides
of the "|_|" -- pointing up, as if its feet were planted in the

Soon the Yei were appearing as arrays of figures.  Not much lat-
er the Yeibichai rug depicting a row of Dineh dancers in ceremo-
nial attire appeared.  The first true sandpainting weaves were
made around 1920, often at the behest of anthropologists and
others interested in objective records of Navajo religion.  For
reasons discussed earlier it's likely that any permanent sand-
painting design will contain subtle flaws which render it tech-
nically powerless.  Nevertheless, the sandpainting and related
weaves are the most demanding of the weavers' skills and have
furthered the transition of the weaving craft into an art form.
They serve to illustrate the rich sky and astronomical imagery
abundant in the traditional Dineh life.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Back To Top of Document                                  Page 10

References and Bibliography

Amsden, C.A. 1934, Navaho Weaving - Its Technic and History
(Santa Ana, CA: The Fine Arts Press).  (1982 Rio Grande Press

Dockstader, F.J. 1987, The Song of the Loom - New Traditions in
Navajo Weaving (New York: Hudson Hill Press).

Gillmor, F. and Wade-Wetherill, L. 1934, Traders to the Navajos
(Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press).

James, G.W. 1920, Indian Blankets and Their Makers, 2nd ed.
(Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.).  (1974 Dover Publications

Kent, K.P. 1985, Navajo Weaving - Three Centuries of Change
(Santa Fe, N.M.: School of Amer. Research Press).

McCoy, R. 1988, "Summoning the Gods - Sandpainting in the
Native American Southwest", Plateau, vol 59, #1.

Newcomb, F.J. 1964, Hosteen Klah - Navajo Medicine Man and Sand
Painter (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press).

Reichard, G.A. 1936, Navajo Shepherd and Weaver (New York: J.J.
Augustin).  (1974 Dover Publications reprint titled Weaving a
Navajo Blanket.)

Trimble, S., ed. 1981, "Tension and Harmony: The Navajo Rug",
Plateau, vol 52, #4.

Williamson, R.A. 1984, Living the Sky (Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Back To Top of Document



Download a gun! - I mean plans for a Navajo loom (in PDS format): Several years before writing the above paper I heard about a Navajo weaving course, taught by Mary McKibben, at the Colorado Springs Fine ArtCenter, and signed up. We met once a week for ten weeks, and the course project was for each of us to weave and complete a piece -- which was only about the size of a placemat. Several days before the first class we got (in the mail) plans for a simple Navajo loom, with a note to built it and bring it the first day. Maybe a decade later I had a website up and was sending out Xerox copies of the plans, along with two additional pages showing how to string the warp and get it all ready for weaving, to anyone who would send me a self-addressed stamped envelope by snail-mail. Someone was then good enough to go to the trouble of scanning these in and converting them from hardcopy into electronic, PDF form, and sending me this file. (This was way back in the day when PDFs were not common, flatbead scanners were expensive professional office equipment, and the download time for this huge a file was 10 minutes (!) with a 56k modem dialup connection.) So that's where the four pages come from.

The loom is capable of weaving pieces 31-32" long (high) and ~24" wide, which is big enough to start with. I'd recommend doing something like at least about a half dozen pieces that size or smaller before considering going to a bigger loom. As is, the loom stands about 40" high and 30" wide.

Then, someone else (Terry Jacobs), someone with an engineering background and the software that goes with it worked up a new, nice and neat set of plans that are much cleaner and more readable. You'll still need the two added pages from the first set.

My website had a couple of beginning Navajo weaving books as additional references, but nearly twenty years later they may now be obscure and/or nearly impossible to find -- if you can't find a class nearby. The Navajo word for "to teach" means "to show", and some things that sound hopelessly complicated in words become simple when you see someone do it.

My interest these days in this field, when I get a chance to turn to it (which isn't often), is in re-engineering old designs that I see in books, often in the form of just a small B&W photo, so the colors aren't even known beyond darker or lighter.

The challenge here is that not just any arbitrary angle is possible for diagonal lines on the Navajo loom. This fundamentally results from the two orthogonal axes being different by ~5x: with standard "Navajo warp" I would string up the loom using eight per inch (across the loom); by contrast, with worsted weight wool yarn (150-180 yards per ¼lb skein) I'd get about 38-40 warp per inch, depending on the yarn and how tightly I'd pack the weave as I went. Since diagonal lines are made by stepping the warp around which the weft turns by one (or two) left (or right) after every N pair of rows (over and back), the angles which are available are effectively limited and quantized to only certain values.

For example, for N=2 there are 4 rows of weft, totalling ~0.1" in the vertical direction, while a step of one warp is 1/8" in the horizontal direction; the ratio of these two dimensions (0.8) is the tangent of the angle -- 38 2/3° in this case. For N=3 the ratio is 1.2 and the angle 50.2°. You can't get a 45° diagonal line -- though by alternating N=2 and N=3 stepping you can! -Since 0.1 + 0.15 = ¼", which is the same as two warp steps (the tangent of 45°=1). The line will look a little zagged-y upon very close inspection, but you can't do any better without changing the warp spacing and/or the weft.

Anybody considering taking up Navajo weaving should also plan on taking up wool yarn dyeing. This is because the commercially available colors of dyed yarn, while suitable for making something like a sweater, are not for the most part very good for Navajo weaves; one is likely to produce a piece that looks too brightly colored and cartoonish.

For a start I'd recommend getting red, yellow, and black dye. With just these three you can make a range of tans, browns, sand colors, pinks, salmon colors, and dark reds. I started with RIT dyes when they came only in powdered form. I first made a stock dilution of ½ teaspoon dye dissolved in 8 fl. oz. water; this was then measured out into the dye bath with a 5 ml pipette (basically a calibrated clear straw). When testing dye recipes or trying to create a color one has in mind, you may only use 10 yards of yarn, which is cut ~6 grams, or less than ¼ ounce. What a dyer calls a 1% dyeing then only requires 0.06 gm dye (since it's a percentage by weight), a tiny amount of the powder. A 1% dyeing is considered a "strong" of "full" dyeing; a pound of dye will dye 100 pounds of "goods". For light shades and tweaking the color slightly on small amounts of yarn you'll only need drops of the stock solutions.

Later, I migrated to using dyes designed specifically for natural fibers. These are often designated as being for silk and/or wool. They're also known as weak acid dyes, because (like Easter egg dyes) you use them with a dilute weak acid, typically acetic acid (vinegar). These come in powdered form and I made stock solutions just like I did with the RIT dyes. A ½-1% acid solution worked well with the dyes I got at a craft store. The white vinegar I got says on the label it's 5% acid, so diluting it to 10% (1 part vinegar + 9 parts water) would give a ½% net acid amount, which would be a good place to start.

The acid makes the yarn "sticky" to the dye molecules, so for strong colors you may want more acid to "push" the dye harder onto the yarn. If the dye bath is too "grippy" the dye will go onto the yarn too fast and give uneven, blotchy results. Different dyes "take" at different rates, so with dye mixtures you can get intermediate results that look strange, with the yarn turning one color (the fast dye) and the dyebath another (the slow dyes).

The advantage of these more specialized dyes was that they are "cleaner", meaning for all but the darkest shades they migrate entirely from the dye bath onto the yarn, leaving the former clear or almost clear. (A dyebath can be re-used a couple times, but will eventually build up invisible salts, which act as retardants, opposite to the way the acid does.) This makes it easier to judge the yarn's color. RIT dyes don't do this because they contain a mixture of different types of dyes, which is why they dye almost anything; when dyeing wool yarn, the dyes meant to dye cotton or polyester are inert and will just remain in the dyebath, leaving it colored, perhaps strongly. You may not be able to judge the color you've actually got without rinsing the yarn.

There's one other caveat and it regards the "black" dyes. I put the word in quotes because if you dilute such a dye sufficiently you'll see that it's not neutral in color. Just about any dark color, like navy blue, dark brown, etc. will appear roughly black in regular light if it is dyed at a strong enough level. So the dye manufacturers don't bother with making such a dye a neutral black.

But this lack of neutrality will mean that it will cause shifts in color when mixed with other dyes to darken or dull them down. To get a true neutral grey to work with one will have to mix the "black" dye with its complementary color(s). With a "black" which was navy bluish or slightly purple-ish dark blue, I found by trial and error that I needed to mix it with 60% as much yellow and 10% as much red, using my dilute stock solutions. (The yellow added to the navy blue makes it slightly greenish, and then the red cancels this out.) This was worth hassling over because it's handy to be able to darken colors without changing their hues.

The only other fine points for good results regard maintaining the physical properties of the yarn during the dyeing process. Before dyeing, I would measure out the amount of yarn I wanted to dye and coil it up loosely into what could be described as a "donut". The hole in the middle makes it easier to raise the yarn out of the dye bath (you may have to make something to serve as a lifter), which allows the liquid to drain out and then re-permeate the yarn when it's re-immersed. You have to do this almost continuously, especially at first, to get an even dyeing. The yarn should be thoroughly wetted (but not sopping) before it goes into the dyebath. I used a ceramic mixing bowl to hold the dyebath (maybe 10-12 fl. oz. of liquid) and yarn. To "set" the dye you want to raise the temperature of this almost to the boiling point, so it is set in a larger pan of water on the stove top and heated. Such temperatures can cause wool to felt, so you'll want to handle the yarn as gently as possible when it's steaming hot. After the dyeing process has gone to completion it's probably best just to turn off the heat, cover the dyebath, and let everything naturally cool down to a temperature where it's easier to handle. For best results the rinse water should be at about the same temperture as the dyebath and yarn, since a big change here can cause a shock to the yarn which results in it felting some.

After dyeing and rinsing, the yarn needs to be strung up to dry. I would typically add twists back into it at this point while unwinding the donut and stringing the yarn up, maybe one or two twists per yard. The yarn is quite "stretchy" at this point so you want to put it under the right amount of tension so it comes out the same length you started with.

With a little experience and experimentation it's easy to develop a method which works consistently and almost becomes second nature.

Back To Top of Document