Taos Trade through Textiles, Part II

Lecture by Mark Winter and Chris Ferguson on Pueblo and Navajo Textiles, at the 2018 NMAM Conference, Taos, NM

Immediately following their lecture on Saltillo and Rio Grande blankets, Mark Winter and Chris Ferguson did a second lecture on Pueblo and Navajo textiles. The Luther Bean Museum is home to six Navajo textiles so I was interested to see this lecture and the textile examples that Mark would provide.

Early Pueblo Indians initially used a backstrap loom but around 700 A.D. they converted to a vertical loom using a continuous warp. They farmed cotton for weaving and, after the Spanish introduced sheep to the region, switched to wool. Pueblos produced a woven square cloth called a manta, worn as a shawl or dress. Around 1600, the Navajo picked up weaving skills and adopted the Pueblo upright loom, typically weaving textiles that were wider than they were long. They became very skilled weavers, producing highly prized and expensive textiles, so tightly woven that they had a waterproof quality.

1st Phase Chief Blanket,
courtesy of Mark and Linda Winter

By 1805 the Navajo were already weaving “Chief” blankets in the style referred to as 1st Phase. These had two brown and three white bands at the top and bottom, and two sets of double indigo bands at the center.




2nd Phase Chief Blanket,
courtesy of Mark and Linda Winter


Navajos valued the red color seen in Mexican serapes, flannels, and other cloth. In raids, they carried off all of the red cloth (bayeta) they found, raveled the yarns, and wove it into their textiles. Traders and trappers carried red cloth for bargaining. This bayeta appears in the 2nd Phase Chief blankets of circa 1855 to 1865. Initially these blankets had twelve sets of red bars within the brown and indigo bands.

Modified 2nd Phase blankets, such as the one modeled by Chris Ferguson in the photograph on the left, incorporated more and more red and were so valued that one blanket was worth ten buffalo robes.



3rd Phase Chief Blanket, courtesy of Mark and Linda Winter


In 3rd Phase Chief’s blankets, red bayeta in the design included nine spots or diamonds and additional red stripes within the indigo bands. Variations of this phase have intricate designs. Mark Winter models the blanket in the photograph on the right.

Designs were conceived as they would appear on the wearer and were held in the mind of the weaver as they were translated into the woven textile.


4th Phase Chief Blanket, courtesy of Mark and Linda Winter

By 1865 to 1875, the diamonds had grown so large that they had coalesced in the 4th Phase Chief blankets. In variants of this phase the diamonds became crosses, and after 1860, aniline (synthetic) dyes were incorporated as well.

In addition to the Chief blankets, other Navajo textiles included: serapes (blankets) with red bayeta, and indigo stripes on a large field of natural white, and Navajo versions of Mexican Saltillos with intricate designs on large red fields. Navajo blankets were in high demand after the 1821 opening of the Santa Fe Trail, and remained so later, with the coming of the trains in the 1880s, for the tourist trade.

Object Conservation and Handling Workshop

I attended the Object Conservation and Handling Workshop at the Millicent Rogers Museum (MRM) in Taos, New Mexico. The workshop was led by Dr. Caroline Jean Fernald, Executive Director of the museum and Carmela Quinto, Curator of Collections. Rather than sit in a conference room, we moved through the different galleries, as they were relevant to aspects of the lecture.

“Donut” and foam sheet under fragile pottery at the MRM

Pottery is breakable, so the museum uses “donuts” made from insulation foam or Styrofoam, lined with clear plastic. The foam donuts are cut to length, the ends are hot-glued together, and the donut is painted to match the pot that it will be holding. Some pots can sit on their sides in such donuts. Other pottery sits on heavy plastic or thin foam sheets that are cut to size. Pots can slide with the vibrations from foot traffic, but the plastic has enough friction with the base of the pot so that the pots remain in place. Staff regularly checks the pots to make sure they are secure. Pottery is dusted with canned air.

The museum has hardwood floors throughout. Any hard flooring material is much better than carpet, which can harbor pests. Textiles are vulnerable to moths. A pest control service sprays specifically for moths once per month. If evidence of moth activity is found, both sides of the textile are vacuumed and the textile is frozen to kill pests.

Curator’s cart at the MRM

The museum is gradually changing to all LED lights. Prints and photographic works are framed with UV-coated museum glass. The glass in the gallery windows is UV protected. Matted or framed prints and photographs are taken apart to determine if archival materials have been used. If not, they are re-matted with acid-free materials and re-framed. For jewelry, moisture can be a problem, so our dry climate helps. The glass cases are not completely airtight because some airflow is necessary. Unfortunately, even the small openings allow bugs and critters to enter the cases. Lizard excretions can damage metals. Retablos and Bultos are displayed in glass-fronted cases. They are dusted with a feather duster, or a soft cloth if needed.

Cultural sensitivity has become part of museum ethics in recent decades. The MRM is the first museum to make policy that protects culturally sensitive artifacts. Accordingly, the MRM no longer displays burial pots or sensitive items from communities such as the Penitentes. The museum collections of these types of items are housed in a vault.

Gloves to handle objects at the workshop

When handling objects, it is best to wear nitrile or cotton gloves to protect yourself and to protect the objects. This is especially important when handling textiles, since it is unknown what chemicals may be embedded. Textiles may have been sprayed for pests or cleaned with chemicals. It is helpful to wear a lab coat or apron to protect clothing and to use a full particulate mask when cleaning objects.