Navajo Rugs 101

Move over, Persian rugs. Navajo rugs bring contemporary design chops to traditional tribal floor covering.

January 13, 2020
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Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Photo By: Nizhoni Ranch Gallery

Navajo Rugs: Art for Your Floor

The Navajo are among the finest rug makers in the world, featuring loom work and design on par with the best Persian rugs. These Southwestern masterpieces feature designs and colors that work with many decor styles, from midcentury modern to Arts and Crafts to eclectic. Their timeless patterns have even inspired tribal-style rugs, like the one shown here, that are trendy today. “Navajo rugs warm up any room they’re in,” says Ann Marshall, director of research at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. “They’re so diverse and there are so many looks and styles that there’s something for everyone.” Here’s a lesson on Navajo rugs rich history and some of the major design styles.

Two Grey Hills

Many of the rug designs take their names from the towns or trading posts where they were originally sold in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. White traders art-directed the designs based on what they thought they could sell to tourists, so regional styles developed. Today the styles are made by weavers all over the Navajo Nation, so the name refers to pattern, not its place of origin. Two Grey Hills, named for a village in New Mexico, is defined by its earthy hues of white, black and brown. Weavers mix undyed wool from different sheep to create subtle shades of the trademark Two Grey Hills hues. It’s an old-school style that eschews commercial dyes and focuses on traditional Navajo materials and sensibility. Woven by Helen Bia.

Ganado

Ganado is a classic Navajo design style that originated in 1878 at a New Mexico trading post run by a guy named John Lorenzo Hubbell who found he could sell red rugs by the trainload back east via mail-order catalog. Ganados remain one of the most widely recognized styles of Navajo rugs. When you see a mass-produced rug pitched as having a Native American design, it’s usually a riff on a Ganado. This style always has a red background with a black, white and gray design based on a central diamond or two. Crosses, zig zags, serrates (a stair-stepped pattern) and other simple geometric shapes surround the main design. Rug woven by Elsie Bia.

Klagatoh

These look a lot like Ganados, but they have a gray background instead of a red one. Weavers use black, white and red in a design centered on an elongated diamond. Like Ganados, they have black borders, stair-stepped diamond patterns and simple geometric shapes throughout the rug design. And like Ganados, they originated at a Hubbell trading post and were sold by the hundreds of thousands via mail order in the early 20th century. Rug woven by Mae Jean Chester.

Teec Nos Pos

Surrounded by a wide border, Tee Nos Pos rugs have an elaborate center design surrounded by stylized images and feature lush colors. The most intricate and expensive of the Navajo styles, it originated in 1905 and was influenced by Persian rugs that Navajo weavers had seen in photos. Teec Nos Pos is Navajo for “Cottonwoods in a Circle,” the community where the design originated. Weaver unknown, circa 1920s.

Yeibichai

Yeibichai (yay-ba-chay) rugs depict a Navajo ceremony called the Nightway, in which human dancers dress as Yeis, the spirits who control elements like rain, snow, wind, sun, night and day. Yeibichais are defined by their design, not their colors, which always feature groups of dancers, male and female, in ceremonial dress. Weaver unknown, circa 1930s.

Storm

This rug features Navajo symbolism for a rain storm and is distinguished by its style, not its colors. The middle of Storm rugs have a geometric shape, representing the center of the universe, with shapes in the corners of the rug representing the four sacred mountains of the Navajo world. They usually have a dark border with geometric teeth on one side, and stylized feathers, clouds or animals between the center design and the border. Weaver unknown, circa 1920s.

Bistie

The rarest Navajo rug style peaked in the 1940s, inspired by Oriental rug designs and colors. There are very few Navajo weavers making them today. Bisties are defined by curvilinear designs that look a lot like Teec Nos Pos, but Bisties usually have prayer feathers, detailed geometric designs or pictorial motifs surrounding a central element. Woven by Marian Nez.

Chinles

A banded rug with no border, Chinles are the simplest of the Navajo designs, with solid-color stripes alternating with bands of repeated geometric designs such as squash blossoms, stacked chevrons, diamonds and even railroad tracks. They tend to be pastel or muted colors with lots of golds, greens, grays and whites. They’re one of the most affordable and widely made styles because the design is straightforward and easier to weave than more elaborate styles. Woven by Gloria Bia from yarn hand-dyed by Helen Bia.

Eyedazzler

They’re just as billed: busy, bright, eye-dazzling rugs that repeat a simple shape like a diamond or chevron throughout the entire design. The use of color creates a high-energy, three-dimensional illusion. Eyedazzlers were one of the earliest Navajo rug designs, dating to the 1870s, and were influenced by Mexican serapes. The Navajo made them with brightly colored commercial yarns they got from the U.S. government after they were forced off their tribal lands and no longer had their native churro sheep from which to make their own yarn. Woven by Selena Yazzie.

Pictorial

A pictorial rug, also called a specialty rug, depicts images from Navajo life. Some show landscapes or scenes from the Reservation, and they can be in any color scheme. This one’s all feathers and arrows and a trading post Indian, made in Klagotah colors for the tourist trade by an unknown weaver in the 1940s. Sales of Navajo rugs soared during the booming post-World War II economy as Americans traveled for leisure and brought Native American rugs, both real and imitation, back home from their trip West. The designs and colors of Navajo rugs went well with midcentury modern decor in homes springing up in sprawling suburbs across the country. Weaver Unknown, circa 1940s

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