Navajo Textiles

Wearing Blankets and Rugs

May 17- Sept 29, 2013

During the 19th century, the Native Americans of the Southwest used colorful handwoven wool textiles as clothing, cloaks, baby wraps, bedding, furnishings, saddle blankets and trade goods. Featuring 50 blankets made between 1860 and 1960, Navajo Textiles highlights the powerful aesthetics and graphic design trends that characterize the five periods of Navajo weaving. Additionally, the exhibition emphasizes the Navajo blanket weaving process including the materials, functions and design motifs. This exhibition was curated by Tobi Smith, Executive Director of the California Heritage Museum from the Mark and Jan Hilbert Collection.


Navajo rugs and blankets (Navajo: diyugí) are textiles produced by Navajo people of the Southwestern  United States. Navajo textiles are highly regarded and have been sought after as trade items for over 150 years. Commercial production of hand-woven blankets and rugs has been an important element of the Navajo economy.

Navajo textiles were originally utilitarian blankets for use as cloaks, dresses, saddle blankets and similar purposes. Near the end of the 19th century, weavers began to make rugs for tourism and export. Typical Navajo textiles have strong geometric patterns. They are flat tapestry-woven textiles produced in a fashion similar to the kilims (“Oriental-style” rugs and carpets) of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, but with a few notable differences. In Navajo weaving, the slit weave technique common in kilims is not used. Additionally, the warp is a single continuous length of yarn, not extending beyond the weaving as fringe. Traders from the late 19th and early 20th century encouraged adoption of some kilim motifs into Navajo designs.

The original function of Navajo weaving was to produce clothing: shoulder robes, rectangular panel or wrap-around-dresses, semi-tailored shirts, breechcloths and a variety of belts, sashes, hair ties and garters.

The Navajo did not produce rugs until export markets expanded at the end of the 19th century, and their textiles served no specific religious or ceremonial function.

19th Century Navajo Textiles

  • Classic Period (1800-1865)

  • Late Classic Period (1865-1880)

• Transitional Period (1880-1900)

  • Rug Period (1895-1950)

  • Contemporary Period (1950–Present)

1 Salkeld, Stefani. Southwest Weaving: A Continuum, San Diego: San Diego Museum of Man (1996) p. 11