Sunday, December 12, 2010

Layers of Meaning

We were driving through Arizona on our way to Canyon de Chelly, when I spotted a very small brown road sign for the Hubbell Trading Post. We screeched to a halt and turned into the driveway. I was totally unprepared: I did not know it still existed, nor did I know it was a National Park Site, nor did I know we were anywhere near it (because, doh, I did not know it still existed).

The was a pasture with churro sheep(!), a guard llama, and a guard dog. There was a visitors center, and then there was the (tiny!) trading post, living quarters and stable. There were carts and buggies in the stables, which smelled of horse, but no horses were there at present.

John Hubbell played an integral part in the re-settlement of the Navajo after Kit Carson slaughtered many, then rounded up and marched the survivors to Fort Sumner NM in the 1860's. A fragment of the Navajo population had finally returned to their homeland, decimated by war, disease, marching for 300 miles and years of incarceration. Hubbell, and several other trading posts, began to supply goods to these survivor/returnees in exchange for weavings, which the traders then sold back East.

In order to sell native-made rugs to picky Eastern householders, traders had designs drawn up that would suit their homes, designs based on Turkish rugs, or rugs that the buyers would see as familiar patterns.

Paintings were made of these designs, and then potential customers would pick out what they liked, the weavers would look at the painting, and then weave up the commission. The rugs we know today as Navajo designs are based on these paintings. Previous to the Trading Post Period Rugs, Navajo weavings were mostly striped blankets, some with geometric edgings including triangles and points.

The paintings were there.

They hang on the walls of the trading post, along with examples of baskets. There was a case of silver and turquoise jewelry, at which I barely glanced, making my way into the Rug Room.

There were stacks and stacks of rugs. Size, color and quality varied, and the prices were well beyond what I could invest. I searched anyway. There were some that I thought I might be able to stretch for, but (not being much of a Navajo rug collector) I resisted the big ones (even though I looked through them!).

There were a few very small rugs, and some saddle blanket sized, some even smaller, decorative, including an oddly colored, poorly woven one I thought was charming. It was what we think of as a traditional Navajo design, but the colors were irregular, and some of the yarns were larger grist, making it lumpy, and hard to beat properly with the finer yarns.

The proprietor told me it was woven by a 90 year old grandmother, who still lives on her own, doesn't see well, and is not as capable as she once was, which I also found charming. Being new to this grandmother business, I thought it was a good investment of my few $$.

I picked up some churro yarns, and we were writing up the ticket, when I spotted this:
hubble 002

How could I resist? There are sheep! There is even a black sheep! There was the desert, with distant mountains and clouds, just what we were seeing on our drive through AZ and NM. It was beautifully woven, the colors were lovely, and the yarns and beat were even, and it was sheep!

It is a non-traditional design, one based on the weaver's imagination rather than a prescribed set of patterns. It's what I like in contemporary work, not blind following of tradition, but good use of traditional techniques to make a contemporary weaving. This weaver was a young woman, in her 30's, not so very well known to the trading post staff.

I changed my mind, had the purchase switched to this one, (the price was the same as the one I had chosen previously) and the proprietor was annoyed with me. I knew why. The grandmother-weaver must have been a friend, she knew much about her, and was encouraging the sale. The grandmother-weaver probably needed the money from the sale for the coming winter.

It made me stop and think. I had to decide: support the grandmother-weaver or the new younger, contemporary woman? I teach weaving. I want younger people to learn to weave, to be able to support themselves with their weaving, to keep traditions alive. I'm not a collector of Navajo textiles, much as I love their designs.

I bought the one that charmed me. I bought the younger woman's work. I bought the better weaving.

I wish I could have purchased both. I like to think my near-purchase left a ghost of attachment on the grandmother-weaving, and the next person in will buy it.

Now? I will take my second pile of churro yarns:
hubble 003

And head to the studio to weave my non-traditional designs in my very traditional knotted pile techniques.

I hope I chose wisely.


Blogger Lisa said...

When I went back to AZ in '93 to visit, we stopped at one of the trading posts just inside the AZ line on Rt. 40. I made the mistake of looking at one of the big rugs--it had a $10,000 tag on it. If I ever hit it big in the Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes, I'm going back!!

Love the sheepy weaving. Jellus of the churro yarns. Some of us have to spin our own. ;-)

3:42 PM  
Blogger Chris Gray said...

I've been a lover of Navajo weaving for many years. A couple in my guild spent a lot of time with them, learning the techniques and then passing them on to those of us back in the UK. I only ever finished ONE!...but it's on the wall in my living room. I enjoy it still.

I'm glad you bought for love, not conscience. The grandmother's weaving will sell soon...especially with the salesperson on side :-)

You'll enjoy weaving your yarns too I'm sure...and will remember the experience of the day you bought them.

Happy weaving..

3:24 AM  
Blogger Charlene said...

Just ... thanks. Thanks for the story, thanks for your excitement, thanks for supporting new weavers.

Enjoy your sheepy rug!

Todays' Verification word: rubre: French rube

7:29 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Mezoff said...

I grew up in Gallup, not so very far from Hubbells. Consider, if you're ever back in the area, going to the Crownpoint rug auction. There you can buy quality rugs right from the weavers. This is where the trading post owners buy the rugs with the $10K price tags (and many are much much more). Glad you enjoyed my home-stomping grounds!

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Benita said...

What a wonderful story and what a great rug!! I love her imagination and I hope she weaves and sells for many years to come what is in her imagination. I have been a fan of the Begay's works for years and, one day, I'd love to own one of their rugs.

4:10 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Rebecca M is a good enabler - now you have another reason to head East (besides the one here in CO).

I'd have gone for the sheep one too. I have a horse blanket like the grandmother's rug. I love it but it's fragile and has needed care since I bought it 30 yrs ago. I don't dare put it on display for fear of cat toenails. Not the way to enjoy a weaving.

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

You were clearly so charmed by the sheep rug that I think if you had seen it first, you may not have given the grandmother's rug a second glance.
Didn't you also think it odd that they were the same price when the weaving quality was not comparable?
I expect better-made items to cost more than inferior ones.

8:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My old stomping grounds! I practiced Veterinary Medicine in Tsaile (at the 'top' of Canyon de Chelly) for 3 years in the mid-1980s. That's where I was first exposed to the concepts of spinning and weaving. I love that area. Peace. D Taylor, DVM

6:40 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

Wow Sara, you walked on hallowed ground. I've read a number of books on that area. That was almost a Sophie's Choice kind of moment. I can see that you've thought about it for days.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous May McCay said...

You brought back memories of a rainy Saturday morning spent in Hubbell Trading post. We found our way to the rug room and stacks of the older rugs; we looked at them all. I screamed at the young boy who started to walk across one we were looking at; his sneakers were covered with wet, red mud and his parents said nothing. Daughter and I each bought a rug; then the manager brought items from the safe for us to see. An unbelievvattedarable small, contemporary weaving at 120 ppi.

7:55 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home