Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Raveled Yarns and Navajo Blankets


Raveled Yarns and Navajo Blankets

Raveled yarns – fibers loosened from a piece of woven cloth and rewoven into another – make one of their earliest appearances in Greek myth. Faced with the prospect of choosing from a court of unwanted suitors when the cloth on her loom was complete, Homer’s Penelope unpicked each day’s weaving to stall time. Textile historians Mildred Constantine and Laurel Reuter note that in Syria, the ancient city of Palmyra is thought to have specialized in the unpicking and reweaving of silk. Anthropologist Judith Wilson has noted that in the southern United States, slave women unravelled threads from discarded stockings and fabric remnants and used the threads to stylishly wrap around their own hair. In African myth, scholar Lisa Aronson notes that the Akwete tribe of south eastern Nigeria tells the story of a weaver who wove in secret to protect her technique of unpicking yarns from imported European cloths and incorporated the yarns into her own designs. Raveled yarns have also been used by Navajo weavers; the current exhibition at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., highlights new research in this area.

Continuing the research of the late Joe Ben Wheat, Ann Lane Hedlund has observed that in Late Classic Navajo blankets (ca. 1865 – 1880) several factors assist in determining the presence of raveled yarn. The direction inn which the thread is twisted, worsted versus woollen spinning, yarn thickness, and the presence of a single or plied yarn all offer information regarding the provenance of the yarn. The presence of speckling in the dye color can indicate that a yarn originally came from a cloth that was dyed after it was woven. Several distinctive red dyes have also been associated with ravelled yarns from the Late Classic period of Navajo weaving.

Curated by Hedlund, “Navajo Blankets of the Nineteenth Century: Selections from the Textile Museum Collections” is on display at the Textile Museum through March 14. The exhibition presents examples of recent research into the fibers and dyes present in the 19th-century Navajo textiles and traces the rapid changes embraced by Navajo weavers. Along with raveled yarns, the presence of indigo-dyed fibers, commercial yarns, and early synthetic dyes indicate a thriving textile-related trade in the region. Exposure to new materials and the speed with which the Navajo weavers adopted new materials and techniques tells us, more than a century later, much about the curiosity and creativity of the weavers at the time.

FiberArts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2004: 11)