Techniques & Technologies

Rapheal Begay (Diné), Weaving Room (Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, Teec Nos Pos, AZ), October 2021. Digital photograph. Photo: Courtesy the artist.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnographers from the American Museum of Natural History, New York, collected in-process textiles in order to understand and preserve the techniques and materials of Diné (Navajo) weaving. Today, these unfinished objects reveal the sources and treatment of materials like fiber and dye, the variations in loom technology and construction, and the knowledge, skills, and stories of loom makers and weavers. The personal connection between a weaver and their tools can also be seen in examples of teaching tools owned by fifth-generation weavers Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas (both Diné). Taken together, these historical and contemporary items manifest important aspects of oral tradition and cultural heritage, offering insight into the spiritual value and cultural significance embedded in Diné weaving processes.

In Focus

Blanket and loom Diné artist
Blanket and loom

before 1898
Chaco Canyon, San Juan County, New Mexico
Wood, wool, pigment, hide, and cloth
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by George H. Pepper, donated by B. T. B. Hyde, 1/5335

Although the precise circumstances of creation and collection often remain out of reach, unfinished textiles reveal a great deal about the process of Navajo weaving. Based on its incomplete state, Diné (Navajo) weavers Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas suggest that the maker of this particular piece might have passed away before she could finish the planned design. The textile also smells of soot—with a few burn marks and singed warp ends—indicating that it may have survived a fire and was subsequently sold to the collector, George H. Pepper, “as is.” Another unique aspect of the piece is that a shovel handle was used as the top beam of the loom, revealing that weavers often creatively sourced materials that were readily available for the construction of their loom frames.

The half-finished textile is coarsely textured and the weft yarns are unraveling where the weaver stopped at the cotton warp ends, which further exposes the nubby quality of the yarn. The fiber’s uneven ply suggests that the yarn was spun by an older weaver, who may not have been able to maintain tension when preparing the fiber for weaving. The blanket is sewn down the middle, indicating that it was intended to be collected and displayed in its current unfinished state (see below).1 In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ethnographers sought in-progress pieces as a way to gain a technical understanding of the medium. It is possible that curators then displayed works like this in a museum context to reveal the making process to visitors.

Diné artist, Blanket and loom, before 1898, Chaco Canyon, San Juan County, New Mexico. Wood, wool yarn, pigment, hide, and cloth. Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Collected by George H. Pepper, donated by B. T. B. Hyde, 1/5335.

Upon closer observation, there is evidence of “lazy lines,” most visible in the red woven sections and patterned areas, which serve as a material signature of the weaver’s process. Also known as sectional weaving lines, these are a unique technical feature of Navajo textiles and occur when the weaver has added weft in sections to create certain design elements.2 While lazy lines are a common feature of many Navajo textiles, the vibrant color palette is what makes this piece distinctly Navajo.3 For the most part, this work was made with commercial yarns in a brilliant range of colors and is typical of “eye-dazzler” blankets of the late nineteenth century. However, one small section of green weft threads at the bottom of the woven section appears to be dyed with local, natural materials.

—Jessie Young

  • 1

    Hadley Jensen, consultation with author at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, February 16, 2021.

  • 2

    Ann Lane Hedlund and Louise Stiver, “Wedge Weave Textiles of the Navajo,” American Indian Art Magazine 16, no. 3 (Summer 1991): 54–82.

  • 3

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

Loom with woman’s dress Hopi artist
Loom with woman’s dress

Hopi artist
First Mesa, Navajo County, Arizona
date unknown
Wool, wood, hide, and cotton
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Dr. Herbert J. Spinden, 50.1/6828 A–J, accession no. 1912–23

This unfinished Hopi woman’s dress, still on its loom, was constructed with wool warp and weft. Close examination reveals that the threads were originally colored with indigo, but then overdyed with a darker hue to achieve the rich black color. The dress is constructed from three distinct panels and a raised weft thread marks their division. The top and bottom parts are woven in a simple twill, while the middle contains a diamond twill weave. The weaver most likely made part of the dress, then flipped the loom and continued to weave from the other side.

As among neighboring peoples in the Southwest, Hopi looms with half-finished textiles—in this case, a dress, donated by Herbert J. Spinden—were sometimes made for souvenir markets and museum collectors around the turn of the twentieth century. It is apparent that the yarn used in this piece was much more finely spun than in the textiles on the other two looms in this section, perhaps because of its use as a dress, which would be lighter than a blanket for purposes of mobility and breathability.1

In most weaving techniques in the region, the weft is passed through a gap called the shed, which is created by lifting different combinations of warp threads. On all three of these looms, the warp was prepared in the same way.2 The desired number and length of warp threads is achieved by wrapping counted threads around two poles or a warping frame placed in the ground. The warp is then carefully transferred onto wooden beams and secured to set up the loom for weaving.

With looms that are set up for plain weave, such as those of the Navajo and Zuni, there are two sets of heddles that can be lifted to produce the shed. By contrast, this Hopi loom features four sets of heddles, which separate the warp threads into different groups to create more complex patterns, like the diamond twill, when they are picked up.3 The heddles are controlled by the weaver’s hand as he lifts a string fastened to each rod. Unlike most Navajo and Zuni loom-woven textiles, this beautiful black dress was woven across the entire width of the loom with one passing of the weft, resulting in a continuous field of color and material. Additionally, the tightness of the selvedges (the woven edges of the textile) reveals the weaver’s ability to maintain tension, which demonstrates his exceptional skill.

—Jessie Young

  • 1

    Eulalie H. Bonar, ed., Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

  • 2

    Tyrone D. Campbell, Historic Navajo Weaving, 1800–1900: Three Cultures—One Loom (Albuquerque: Avanyu, 1987).

  • 3

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

Blanket loom with partial weaving Zuni artist
Blanket loom with partial weaving

Zuni artist
McKinley County, New Mexico
date unknown
Wood, wool, pigment, string, plant, fiber, cloth, and hair
Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York, Donated by Alfred L. Kroeber, accession no. 1915–52, 50.1/8844

Zuni and Hopi weavers typically construct their textiles with an open, balanced weave, whereas Navajo textiles are weft-faced and densely packed. This weaving is made with thick and coarse wool in a natural palette, a common attribute of Zuni textiles. There is a horsehair rope bound to the top beam, which might have been used to keep the loom taut and upright as the weaver worked. This piece and its loom frame were acquired by Alfred L. Kroeber during a museum collecting expedition between 1910 and 1912, accompanied by several skeins of yarn, which affirm that scholars and collectors had a specific interest in materials and the value of process rather than just finished products.

Upright Pueblo looms are reported to have been in existence in the American Southwest since 1100 CE and very little has changed over time regarding their structure and the technique used to operate them. In Pueblo weaving traditions, the loom was often suspended from the roof beams of a sacred structure called the kiva, and male weavers sat on the floor while they worked. While Navajo weaving relied on a wooden frame of upright poles to support the warp beams, the lower beams of the Pueblo loom’s frame were anchored into the ground with heavy stones.1 The Pueblo loom could easily be disassembled and stored within the home. The tension could also be adjusted using the rope that secured it to the ground and ceiling, used for lifting and lowering the loom. As this partial blanket reveals, the weaver relied on a slender stick, called a temple, to maintain a consistent width throughout the weaving process.

Historically, Pueblo weavers worked with a limited color palette and simple patterning, a practice that supported a less complex design vocabulary and fewer color combinations than in Navajo weaving. In Zuni weaving, a thick two-ply or sometimes three-ply cord was attached to the outer edges of the warp, which was then wrapped around by the weft thread, creating a pronounced, durable selvedge.2 Here, the thick, dark brown yarn—quite visible even at a distance—serves this purpose. The weaver of this unfinished textile wrapped the weft around two or three other warp ends and the outer thread in contrast to the typical selvedge found in Navajo weavings (see two illustrations below).

—Jessie Young

  • 1

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

  • 2

    Eulalie H. Bonar, ed. Woven by the Grandmothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian, exh. cat. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996).

Contemporary Navajo weaving tools
Contemporary Navajo weaving tools

Wooden combs and battens
Courtesy Belvin Pete, Lynda Teller Pete, and Barbara Teller Ornelas
Photo: Courtesy the artists

When you sit down at your loom, you sit down at your universe.

—Lynda Teller Pete (Diné), textile artist

Tools are essential to the weaving process. While all weaving tools are utilitarian objects that assist the weaver in the construction of a textile, they also have spiritual significance and serve as markers of Diné (Navajo) identity. Many such tools are considered to be animate beings and embody a soul (or a life force) of their own. Some weavers think of the warp as a child that only becomes an adult through the creation of a textile. Weaving tools are also considered to have power to protect the weaver from potential harm.

One of the illustrated sets, consisting of a comb and three battens, belongs to fifth-generation Diné weaver Lynda Teller Pete, who uses them when she and her sister, Barbara Teller Ornelas, teach weaving workshops. Pete and Ornelas have been collecting tools from their grandmother since they first learned how to weave; their father, Sam Teller, built their first looms and tools.1 Their late nephew, Terry Lee, made their newer tools, and Lynda’s husband, Belvin Pete, has been making specialty looms. Pete commented that “tool and loom makers really are the unsung heroes of the weaving world.”2

Weavers often have a personal connection with their loom and its tools, and these objects are an important part of Diné identity and culture.3 In addition to their teaching tools, Pete and Ornelas have another set that they consider sacred, many of which belonged to relatives such as their grandmother, grandfather, and mother, all of whom have now passed. While the combs pictured here appear slightly used, the ones that they work with at home show considerable evidence of use and wear. Specific woods selected for these tools by the sisters and other Navajo weavers include hardwoods such as piñon (associated with male qualities) or softwoods like cedar (female qualities), which can determine the type of comb that the weaver chooses to use.4 Similarly, weavers may select their combs based on the teeth, weight, or hand feel.5 The weaver grips the comb in their dominant hand and uses it to pack down the weft after it has been inserted between the warp threads. It is important to use this tool to maintain an even and compact structure. Pete and Ornelas advise that the combs should be handled with care and routinely maintained through light oiling and sanding when between projects to increase their longevity.

—Jessie Young

Artist Bio

Two Grey Hills tapestry weavers Lynda Teller Pete (Diné, b. 1958) and Barbara Teller Ornelas  (Diné, b. 1954) are Tabaaha (Water Edge Clan) and born for the To’aheedliinii (Two Waters Flow Together Clan). Navajo weaving traditions span seven generations in the Teller family of Two Grey Hills, New Mexico. For over five generations, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins have produced award-winning rugs that have been featured in numerous publications, private collections, and museums. They are known for weaving tapestries in the traditional Two Grey Hills pattern, identified primarily by a double-diamond layout and intricate geometric designs made with natural-colored, hand-carded, and hand-spun wool.

Dah iistłʼǫ́ bikéé’ yishááł: My Journey with the Loom
Lynda Teller Pete

For more information about Barbara Teller Ornelas and her work, see the In Focus essay on Contemporary Chief Set (Three Miniatures).

Weaving as a Way of Creating Kinship: Fields of the Future Podcast, March 4, 2023

Jessie Mordine Young speaks with authors, educators, and fifth-generation Navajo weavers Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas about their ancestral knowledge of weaving, their process of making rugs, their recently published book on the topic, and their relationship with their tools.

Listen Now

Craft in America. Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete, Idyllwild Arts. Video, 2016. PBS. Accessed April 29, 2020.
Craft in America. “Ruth Teller Weaves With Color.” Youtube video, 2:39. Posted by “Craft in America,” August 8, 2016.
  • 1

    Lynda Teller Pete, email exchange with author, March 4, 2021.

  • 2

    Lynda Teller Pete, email exchange with author, March 4, 2021. Pete and Ornelas also mentioned how special their tools were to them, commenting that they are something that they will never discard.

  • 3

    Jill Ahlberg Yohe, “The Circulation and Silence of Weaving Knowledge in Contemporary Navajo Life,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 36, no. 4 (2012): 107–26.

  • 4

    Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, Zoom interview with author, March 9, 2021.

  • 5

    Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, How to Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman (Loveland, CO: Thrums Books, 2020).

Learn More

The Navajo loom
The Navajo loom

Illustrated by Myke Yellowman
From Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, How To Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman (Loveland, CO: Thrums Books, 2020), 34–35
Photo: Courtesy the artist and Schiffer Publishing/Thrums Books

The Navajo loom itself is considered a sacred object, symbolizing sturdiness and strength, and being in its presence requires mindfulness and respect. As described in the story of Spider Woman, the Navajo loom originated in the cords of sky and earth, which explains the beginnings of Navajo weaving. Looms and other weaving tools are thus “a material link between the past, present, and future and memorialize people, kin ties, families, weaving knowledge, skill, and traditions.”1 Weaving and its many tools manifest and enact important aspects of oral tradition and cultural heritage.2 While each weaver and their family maintain their own traditions, interpretations, and values, many share a common belief that weaving tools are highly regarded and sacred objects.

Winding the warp and dressing the loom are the first steps a weaver must undertake before beginning to create a textile.3 The warp is usually constructed on a warping frame, which is wound around two wooden poles or beams that are the same measurement in distance as the desired textile length. Between the beams, a single-ply cord is wound in a figure-eight motion to construct a cross in the center. The cross is important for creating the shed, or gap, between the threads that the weft is passed through, allowing the threads to separate during the weaving process. For Navajo textiles, the warp cord is one long continuous piece and typically consists of seven to twelve warps per inch.

—Jessie Young

  • 1

    M. Jill Ahlberg-Yohe, “What Weavings Bring: The Social Value of Weaving-Related Objects in Contemporary Navajo Life: Hayden Student Paper Award Winner,” Kiva 73, no. 4 (Summer 2008): 367–86.

  • 2

     Although there are many kinds of tools with which to weave, four are integral to Navajo weaving: hand carders, which are used to clean and straighten woolen fibers in preparation for spinning; hand spindles, which are used to spin wool into yarn that will then be used for weaving; battens, which are used during the weaving process to maintain the shed and keep the warp threads separated while the weft is inserted; and wooden combs, which are inserted between the warp threads to pack down the weft and produce a dense plane.

  • 3

    How to Weave a Navajo Rug and Other Lessons from Spider Woman, by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, is the first how-to guide written by Diné (Navajo) weavers and provides detailed step-by-step instructions on the weaving process from beginning to end. Their commitment to sharing their craft, creating a cultural understanding, and preserving tradition is unmatched. In the 1980s their family’s work gained notoriety for its incredible technical achievements and unique designs. Since then, the two sisters have cultivated a dedicated community of makers and students through their nationwide educational programs and weaving workshops. They have been sharing their knowledge and personal stories with both Native and non-Native individuals as they teach the basics of frame loom weaving.