Some of the most timeless and sought after textiles in the world are those which represent Navajo designs and symbols. It is believed the Navajo began using their weaving skills sometime around 1650 after they migrated from the north down to the Southwest. Though the arrival of the Spaniards in this region was not welcomed, they came with churro sheep which then allowed the Navajo to weave with a new material, wool, besides their traditional cotton.

Navajo weaving spans more than three hundred centuries. Historians who studied this particular craft during this time period have roughly defined three major periods in which to more easily identify the changes and trends in these weavings.

They are listed as:

The Classic Period from 1650 to 1868

The Transitional Period from 1868 to 1890

The Rug Period from 1890 to 1920

During The Classic Period, Navajo weavings were primarily crafted for use as blankets and clothing to provide warmth and protection from the natural elements. These early blanket designs were marked by the use of broad stripes which the Navajo wore across their shoulders with distinctive style. Over the course of The Classic Period, the broad stripes would become embedded with the more elaborate designs of diamond and zigzag motifs as well as triangle and cross symbols. The colors used also changed from natural earth tones to indigo blues and vivid reds. These new colors were made available to the Navajo from the Spanish who brought with them the indigo plant dye as well as woven bolts of these red colors. Two predominant styles of woven wearing blankets emerged during this Classic time frame which include the serape and the chief blanket. The serapes are characterized by their white, red and blue colors along with the more intricate diamond and zigzag designs. The chief blankets are distinguished by their white, brown, blue and red colors combined in simple, wide, horizontal stripe designs. Later on, the simple stripe design would become the background for woven patterns of triangle and rectangle shapes added to the design. Both the serapes and chief blankets with their distinct Navajo designs and symbols not only commanded valuable acquisition in their time, but remain the most highly sought after Navajo textiles today.

serape blanket

Navajo Serape Design, circa 1865-1875

In 1863, close to the end of The Classic Period, Colonel Kit Carson began the round up of the Navajo people upon orders from the US government. This was a fateful time which would change the lives of the Navajo forever. For five years, after being forced to walk hundreds of miles, they would live in confinement, separated from the familiar comfort of their homes and land. During this time, however, the Navajo were exposed to both new commercial yarns and new design concepts. We now enter The Transitional Period wherein these changes resulted in two new predominant and distinct design styles. The first of these is known as the “eyedazzlers” with intricate, dazzling design combinations using the newly acquired colorful, commercial yarns. These designs blended bold, repetitive patterns with equally bold colors to create truly eccentric blankets. The Navajo use of the same symbols combined into endless, new, stunning patterns is a testimony of their creative brilliance for masterful design. Along with these eyedazzler designs came a new “pictorial” blanket which now included symbols from nature such as animals, plants, flowers and stars. It is believed that the increasing exposure of the Navajo to diverse cultures, along with the ever expanding trade market for their textiles, provided new sources of materials and inspiration to the Navajo weavers. Inevitably, progress would bring the opening of the West and the coming of the railroad which would put an end to the Navajo’s isolated way of life forever. Their weavings and textiles would become heavily influenced by the demands of traders.

In 1868 the Navajo were allowed to return to their homelands. As the West opened up in the 1880s, traders and merchants were common visitors to the Navajo reservations in search of their woven textiles. It was under the influential demands of the traders that the tightly woven, thin wearing blankets were transformed into thicker weaves for use as rugs. By the end of the 19th century, the market demand for the Navajo wearing blankets vanished, and was completely replaced by rugs. Navajo weavings for use on the floor required heavier yarns as well as whole new patterns and designs. Perhaps the most notable design motifs added to the Navajo rug weavings at this time were figures adapted from their sacred rituals. Despite protests from the Navajo elders and medicine men, weavers pressed forward with these sacred figure symbols which were in overwhelmingly popular demand with outsiders. At the same time, some traders went to great lengths to have Navajo weavers return to their earlier Classic Period weavings which were fading quickly out of existence.

navajo design

Navajo Serape Design, circa 1880-1895


Today, the prized, rare, original blanket weavings from The Classic Period command up to six figures. Modern Navajo weaving continues with beautiful woven textiles for the floors, walls and utilitarian use as blankets and clothing…all of which continue to be infused with the timeless, unique designs and symbols belonging only to the Navajo.


 I would like to acknowledge and thank Nancy Blomberg for her book, Navajo Textiles. I have read and referred to this book so many times over the years. It came in handy, yet again,as a treasured resource for the factual information provided in this post.