Dyeing & Coloring

Rapheal Begay (Diné), Rain God Mesa (Tsé Bii’ NdzisgaiiMonument Valley, UT ), 2021. Digital photograph. Courtesy the artist.

Exploring the history of Indigenous textile designs in the American Southwest reveals a wide spectrum of dyeing and coloring techniques, from natural dyes sourced from the local environment to mass-produced synthetic dyes. As an introduction to dyeing and coloring practices, this thematic section discusses various dye types and includes an interactive version of a dye chart, a tool originally created by a Diné (Navajo) weaver to document and share knowledge about colorants sourced from the local landscape. The textiles featured demonstrate different ways that weavers have adapted their color palettes and patterns in response to external factors, including the shifting availability of source materials and changing consumer tastes. Finally, a study of work by artist Melissa Cody (Diné), which incorporates pop culture aesthetics and synthetic dyes, examines her contemporary interpretation of traditional color and iconography.


Navajo Dye Chart

Learn more about the many plants and natural resources used to color Navajo textiles through this interactive dye chart.

Navajo Dye Chart

In Focus

Asdzą́ą́ bi bééldléé (woman’s manta) Diné artist
Asdzą́ą́ bi bééldléé (woman’s manta)

Diné artist
Dyed and undyed wool, twill weave with interlocking tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Erastus T. Tefft, ca. 1910, 50.1 / 2012

This Diné woman’s wearing manta was crafted during the myriad of catastrophic events in the mid-nineteenth century that include the targeting of Diné weavers for slavery, Kit Carson’s scorched earth campaign, and the forced march to Bosque Redondo—all heinous crimes against my people. The checkered diamonds suggest that it may have been woven by a weaver who escaped slavery and hid among other southwest tribal people or with her family. Whatever the circumstances, the weaver wove a beautiful manta, an art of resistance.

While many collectors and museums consider Chiefs blankets to be the most valuable weavings, today’s Diné weavers advocate for a paradigm shift. Diné Asdzą́ą́ bi bééldléé (women’s wear) should be more valuable, more sought after for collections, and viewed as non-secular. In Diné traditional protocols, mantas such as this are fine art, our Diné haute couture. When worn, the movement of the blanket makes the geometric diamonds look like they are dancing.

—Lynda Teller Pete (Diné), fifth-generation textile artist

In the mid-nineteenth century, Diné (Navajo) weavers began to make one-piece garments modeled on the earlier Pueblo mantas. While most of these were used as shawls, some were sewn along the side into dresses and others were made for collectors.1 Most mantas (called biil by the Diné) have a black center with red panels along the upper and lower edges, and feature decorative motifs in contrasting colors such as stripes, terraced triangles, or, as in this case, open diamonds formed by opposing terraced zigzags. This manta shows striking variations of natural brown and black wool that create earth-like striations along the center (for more information on this topic, see Ecology ). The red panels were often made with yarn from a cochineal-dyed “raveled” trade cloth (bayeta) that arrived from Mexico through the Santa Fe Trail (also known as El Camino Real).2 Cochineal, a domesticated sap-sucking insect that infests a variety of cacti, has been cultivated since precontact times in both Central and South America.3 Although the American Southwest hosts a wild type of cochineal, its dye is considerably less potent than the Mexican domesticated type.4

The Diné started unraveling government-supplied trade cloth for their weavings when natural materials were scarce, during their enforced imprisonment by the United States Army at Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, between 1864 and 1868. Weavers performed the laborious process of unraveling thread and often re-spinning it (now referred to as “raveled red”). The fact that they did so under circumstances of scarcity and deprivation demonstrates notable creativity and innovation. After their return to the Diné homeland, they continued to use the yarn of cochineal-dyed, unraveled trade cloth because, according to contemporary Diné weavers Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, they wanted to avoid processing a dead insect.

—Juliana Fagua Arias

  • 1

    According to Joe Ben Wheat, it was the Western Pueblos, who obtained many of their mantas from the Diné, who sewed them along the sides into dresses. See Joe Ben Wheat, Blanket Weaving in the Southwest, ed. Ann Lane Hedlund (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 135.

  • 2

    The laborious process of unraveling bayeta entailed cutting the cloth into strips and pulling the threads from the short ends of the fabric. The weaver would either incorporate the single strands into the weaving or re-spin it to match the weight of her yarn; any leftover strands would often be carded with local white wool to create pink yarns. Sometimes narrow pieces of bayeta were cut and incorporated intact into the weaving. See Ann Lane Hedlund, “Recycled Reds: Raveled Insect-Dyed Yarns in Blankets of the American Southwest,” in A Red like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World, An Epic Story of Art, Culture, Science, and Trade, ed. Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson, exh. cat. (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of International Folk Art; New York: Skira/Rizzoli, 2015), 146–57. For the Santa Fe trail, also known as El Camino Real, see Gabrielle G. Palmer, ed., El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, 2 vols. (Santa Fe, NM: Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico State Office, 1993 and 1999).

  • 3

    During the colonial period, cochineal dyestuff was the second most important export in New Spain after silver. See James Jeter and Paula Marie Juelke, The Saltillo Sarape: An Exhibition Organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Santa Barbara, CA: New World Arts, 1978), 15.

  • 4

    See Hedlund, “Recycled Reds,” 149–51. For the biogeography of cochineal, see Hedlund, “Recycled Reds,” 154–57.

Mexican serape (blanket) Unidentified artist
Mexican serape (blanket)

Unidentified artist
ca. 1850
Cotton and wool, dyed and undyed, weft-faced tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by H. C. Bumpus, ca. 1910, 65 / 3365

Serapes have been woven since the colonial period in the mining territories of northern Mexico. Although the origin of the serape is still debated, it is generally accepted that it is not indigenous to Mexico but represents a combination of Native and Spanish elements.1 Since serapes were created on narrow, Spanish-style, horizontal frame looms—unlike Navajo and Pueblo textiles—they were woven in two separate panels that were sewn together with their patterns perfectly matching, a demonstration of the weavers’ skills.

Unidentified artist, detail of the Mexican serape (blanket) frame and background, ca. 1850. Cotton and wool, dyed and undyed, weft-faced tapestry weave. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by H. C. Bumpus, ca. 1910, 65 /3365.

This finely woven serape exhibits the skillful use of colored yarns to create a mosaic effect (see the detail above). It has three design fields: a narrow frame, a background, and a central circular medallion. Each design zone consists of myriad smaller, sharp, multihued motifs that seem to vibrate through sudden shifts in color and pattern (see the detail below). Historical serapes like this one often displayed a striped indigo blue, white, and brown color palette.2 By the early eighteenth century, Caribbean plantations dominated the international supply of indigo, displacing India from its status as the major indigo producer of the early modern period.3 Mexican weavers obtained indigo in the form of insoluble compact cakes and employed special techniques to extract the dye, such as dissolving the cakes in urine. The golden browns were likely obtained from brazilwood and the deep blacks were probably produced from logwood, although weavers could also have used undyed natural wool for these colors.4

Unidentified artist, detail of the Mexican serape (blanket) central seam, medallion, and overall vibrating effect, ca. 1850. Cotton and wool, dyed and undyed, weft-faced tapestry weave. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Dr. H. C. Bumpus, ca. 1910, 65 /3365.

Transnational consumer and trade networks also impacted the serape. The elaborate circular medallion on some serapes shows the influence of Chinese silks and Indian cottons that arrived in Mexico throughout the colonial period on Spanish trading ships known as Manila galleons. In turn, the serape’s mosaic effect influenced the later, commercially spun, aniline dyed Diné eye-dazzler.

—Juliana Fagua Arias

  • 1

    James Jeter and Paula Marie Juelke, The Saltillo Sarape: An Exhibition Organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Santa Barbara, CA: New World Arts, 1978).

  • 2

    Joe Ben Wheat, Blanket Weaving in the Southwest, ed. Ann Lane Hedlund (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003), 139.

  • 3

    Laurie Diane Webster, “Effects of European Contact on Textile Production and Exchange in the North American Southwest: A Pueblo Case Study” (PhD. diss, University of Arizona, 1997), sec. Indigo and Brazilwood, 583–86.

  • 4

    Jeter, The Saltillo Sarape, sec. Weaving and Dyeing.

Germantown blanket (eye-dazzler) Diné artist
Germantown blanket (eye-dazzler)

Diné artist
ca. 1900
Wool yarn, cotton warp, and cotton string, tapestry weave
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Uriah S. Hollister, ca. 1911, 50.1 / 4400

Listen to reflections on this item from Diné fiber artist and weaver Tyrrell Tapaha.

Tyrrell Tapaha is a Diné weaver and fiber artist from Goat Springs, Arizona. Their work encompasses the intergenerational pastoral living handed down through Tapaha’s grandfather, great-grandmother, and other relatives willing to teach. Tapaha produces woven textiles and felted objects for both aesthetic and utilitarian uses. These textiles are made with raw natural fibers predominantly grown on the Navajo Nation and hand-dyed with local flora from the Four Corners Region. Tapaha’s weavings are tied to a life lived and intimately interwoven with feelings, memories, and experiences. Tapaha has worked as an apprentice with master weaver Roy Kady. In addition to their fiber and textile work, Tapaha also works full-time as a sheep herder in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation.

In the 1860s the Diné (Navajo) were forced by the United States Army to migrate from their homeland in what is now the Four Corners region to Bosque Redondo, a government-sanctioned reservation in eastern New Mexico. This imprisonment inflicted severe economic pressures on the Diné, obstructed their access to resources, and prompted the introduction of Euro-American materials and technologies in their creative work. Government agents provided new materials including machine-spun, aniline-dyed yarns made in Germantown, Pennsylvania, as well as Hispanic Rio Grande blankets that were influenced by the Mexican serape and woolen trade cloths.1

Diné artist, detail of Germantown blanket (eye-dazzler), ca. 1900. Wool yarn, cotton warp, and cotton string, tapestry weave. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by Uriah S. Hollister, ca. 1911, 50.1 / 4400.

As an alternative to the laborious processes of dyeing and spinning yarn, weavers spent more time creating increasingly elaborate designs. Characterized by their brilliant colors, stacked patterns, and vibrating compositions, these designs diverged from the earlier horizontal bands and geometric figures formed by naturally dyed or undyed yarns. Drawing inspiration from Mexican serapes, this example has a central motif of concentric diamonds that ripple through a background of diagonal lines. Sharp zigzags and terraces are rendered in multihued yarns that contrast with the “salt-and-pepper” Germantown Partridge yarn, produced for a limited time by an eastern mill (see the detail above).2 This piece was collected by Uriah S. Hollister and featured in his seminal 1903 publication, The Navajo and His Blanket, in which he dated the blanket to the mid-1870s.3 Although the weaver of this historic blanket is unidentified, another example of her work is believed to have been identified in the Durango Collection at the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College (see the blanket illustrated below).

Diné artist, Germantown blanket with birds, 1880s. Cotton string warp and wool Germantown yarn weft, weft-faced plain weave. The Durango Collection®, Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, 2012:300.001.

The adoption of external supplies and the subsequent development of innovative weaving styles corresponded to a wider shift among the Navajo from local subsistence manufacture and intertribal trade to a Euro-American, tourist-oriented market that was drawn to brilliant colors and bold patterns.4 Consumer enthusiasm for the Germantown style, however, was short-lived; traders, patrons, and ethnographers soon shifted their interest to what was considered “traditional” weaving, rejecting works influenced by industrialization.5 Some contemporary Diné artists, such as Melissa Cody, have revived and reinterpreted the Germantown style, which perfectly suits the chaotic aesthetics of contemporary pop culture, video games, and street art.

—Juliana Fagua Arias

  • 1

    For more on Germantown, Pennsylvania, see Martha Halpern, “Germantown, Philadelphia: An Emigré Textile Settlement c. 1680–1960,” Textile History 29, no. 2 (1998): 157–76.

  • 2

    Germantown Partridge yarn was a black-and-white space-dyed yarn, produced for a limited time around the turn of the twentieth century; based on the materials used in its construction, the blanket is likely dated to ca. 1895–1905, later than Hollister’s estimation. For additional information, see Laurie D. Webster, Louise Stiver, D. Y. Begay, and Lynda Teller Pete, Navajo Textiles: The Crane Collection at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (Denver: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2017), 171.

  • 3

    Hollister describes this blanket as “A Navajo beauty, wholly of Germantown yarn, about twenty-five years old.” Uriah S. Hollister, The Navajo and His Blanket (1903; Glorieta, NM: Rio Grande Press, 1972), 122.

  • 4

    Lucy Fowler Williams, “The Germantown Connection: The Allure of Quality, Craftsmanship, and Color,” in A Burst of Brilliance: Germantown Pennsylvania and Navajo Weaving, ed. Joe Ben Wheat and Lucy Fowler Williams, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, Arthur Ross Gallery, 1994), 42–65.

  • 5

    Arthur Ross Gallery, A Burst of Brilliance, 7.

World Traveler Melissa Cody (Diné)
World Traveler

Melissa Cody (Diné)
Wool warp, weft, selvedge cords, and aniline dyes
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas, courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

A half circle dotted with a red-and-turquoise checkered pattern protrudes from an imaginary vanishing point and toward the edge of the bidimensional textile surface. Behind, above, and below, bands with electrifying diamond patterning are distorted by overlapping jagged and geometric lines, resembling a glitch on a TV screen. Aniline reds, acid yellows, blues, blacks, and laser greens vibrantly color the large composition, a piece that is emblematic of Melissa Cody’s Germantown Revival style.

The name of this style refers to the commercially manufactured Germantown yarn, produced in the late nineteenth century by an eastern mill in Germantown, Pennsylvania. In the early 1860s the United States government supplied this material to the Navajo people, whom the government had forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland in present-day Arizona and New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a reservation in eastern New Mexico. The violent displacement from their territory and forced migration, a collective trauma known as the Long Walk, imposed economic pressures and scarcity on the Navajo people, as the US military obstructed their access to natural resources. To ensure the continuation and resilience of Navajo weaving traditions—which had previously depended on plant, mineral, and insect-based dyes like indigo and cochineal—weavers incorporated Euro-American materials such as Germantown yarn into their practice. Most of this yarn was provided in the form of woolen blankets, which weavers unraveled to obtain single threads and often re-spun for use in weaving. This process resembled the way in which they attained cochineal-dyed yarn during the Spanish colonial period.

A machine-spun, three or four-ply wool yarn, Germantown yarn is characterized by its synthetic, bright colors, which contrasted sharply with the muted tones of naturally dyed indigo and red as well as brown, white, and black yarns that weavers previously used. Until then, customary designs included simple horizontal bands that were enhanced by diamonds, squares, or crosses to produce a sense of balance and stability. The straightforward designs acutely contrasted with the complicated making process, which included the time-consuming activities of plant collecting, dyeing, and spinning, an ecological embodied knowledge built and sustained throughout generations. 

Incorporating Germantown yarn enabled weavers to create a more complex design vocabulary that matched the vibrancy of this new color palette, including stacked geometric forms and serrated chevrons. The resulting “eye-dazzler” style was characterized by movement—chromatic patterns and compositions that suited the tastes of Euro-American dealers and collectors. The assimilation and skilled use of new materials coincided with a shift from subsistence production and intertribal trade to nationwide manufacture, mainly oriented towards a growing tourist market.

Inspired by street art and pop culture, Cody reinterprets historical Germantown designs by reflecting the contemporary visual culture of a Navajo weaver born in the 1980s. Maintaining the vibrancy of aniline dyes, Cody experiments by combining customary motifs—such as the Whirling Log or Spider Woman’s cross—with video game pixilation and Op art references. Cody’s innovative work appeals to a younger generation of Diné weavers, demonstrating that traditional art forms can be transformed to reflect contemporary experiences. 

—Juliana Fagua Arias

Artist Bio

Melissa Cody (Diné)

Melissa Cody (Diné, b. 1983) is a fourth-generation weaver who is recognized for her innovative Germantown Revival style and her exploration of contemporary issues facing the Navajo Nation. Cody was born to the Edgewater clan in the Navajo Nation and was taught to weave at the age of five by her mother, Lola Cody, on a vertical loom built by her father, Alfred Cody. In 2007 she received a BA degree in studio arts and museum studies from the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work has been featured in both solo and group exhibitions at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft; Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida; Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; and most recently in the 2022 exhibition Water, Wind, Breath: Southwest Native Art in Community at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

“Melissa Cody Artist in Residence 2018,” Heard Museum