The weavings range from geometric to figural designs.
Navajo rugs are the most prized of American Indian weavings, and a walk through the "Navajo Weavings" exhibit at Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art will show you why.
The exhibit features 17 20th-century rugs -- some are borrowed from the Kansas University Museum of Anthropology's collection, others are from private collections.
Andrea Norris, director of the Spencer Museum, said the exhibit shows examples of weaving patterns developed at trading posts in and near the Navajo lands in northeastern Arizona, southern Utah and northwestern New Mexico.
Three of the most influential traders were Juan Lorenzo Hubbell, who opened a post in the late 1870s at Ganado, Ariz.; J.B. Moore, who operated a trading post at Crystal, N.M.; and C.N. Cotton, who opened a wholesale house in 1894 in Gallup, N.M.
Prior to the 1900s, Navajo weavers went through two periods: the Classic or Traditional period, when weavers made blankets for their own use, used wool from their own sheep and were influenced by Mexican or Spanish designs, colors and techniques; and the Bosque Redondo period, when weavers began making pictorial and twill-patterned saddle blankets and rugs with non-native wool for Anglo markets.
(In 1863, Kit Carson and his men invaded Navajo country, destroying crops and animals. The Navajos were moved to Bosque Redondo, a reservation near Fort Sumner, where they remained until 1868.)
Norris said the 20th century saw weavers using hand-spun native wool and concentrating on blankets with heavier weaving and simpler designs. Traders often dictated which designs and colors were used in order to gain higher profits at their markets.
"Hubbell and others decided what a Navajo rug should look like," she said.
Hubbell, for example, liked rugs with even designs, straight edges and a color combination of red, gray, black and white. Cotton, in his catalog, advertised diamond and serrate designs. Moore went so far as to supply the weavers with motifs, such as crosses, hook shapes and whirling logs, and urged them to copy the look of Turkish and Persian rugs.
The Spencer Museum exhibit includes a yei rug, which shows several human-like figures standing in a line. Yei rugs often have religious themes adapted from sand paintings.
Yei rugs are controversial, Norris said, because sand paintings are created for religious ceremonies and then destroyed. The rug, on the other hand, preserves the image.
Although viewers most often hone in on the rugs' patterns, Norris said it's the wool that determines a rug's value.
Initially, the Navajo weavers used the wool of churro sheep. During and after the Bosque Redondo period, the quality of wool declined. In the early 1900s, Norris said, sand and other substances were added to the wool because the rugs were sold by weight. Today, the wool of churro sheep is being used again.
The Navajos most likely learned to weave from the Pueblos, although legend says they were taught by Spider Woman. Norris said Navajo weavings are done mostly by women, but Pueblo weavers are typically men.