A Navajo Rug
The confident fingers of Hazel Nez.
Text by Kathy Eckles Hooker
Photographs by Helen Lau Running
A fine-quality Navajo rug includes both a tight weave and an intricate
design. Hazel Nez, a weaver from the Big Mountain area, is well known
for her beautifully crafted rugs. Hazel lives alone in a big mesa-top
camp, which consists of a hogan, a corral, a weaving shed, and two
houses. Above the door of one of the houses is a wooden sign: Hazel K.
Hazel is extremely knowledgeable, having been a weaver for more than 40
years. She explains that her mother taught her how to weave. "She stood
over me and watched until I did it right." She continues: "It takes me
about two months to make a rug, but of course it depends on the size. I
take all the things from around me to make a rug. I love to weave. I
love to spend time with the weaving."
There are many time-consuming steps to prepare the wool before the
actual weaving may begin. Helen and I ride with Hazel to her sheep camp
in order to watch the sheepshearing. As we travel over the bumpy dirt
road, Hazel explains: "We always shear in the spring. You can't shear
too early, or the sheep will get cold."
After greeting her family members, Hazel and her 6-year-old grandson
Sonny emerge from the hogan with ropes in hand. Hazel motions us to
follow them toward the sheep grazing in a nearby field. As Sonny runs
around the flock, he whistles, yelps, and skips, and the animals slowly
begin to move toward the camp.
Hazel's eyes scan the flock looking for an old male to shear first. She
throws a lasso around the sheep's head and says, "I've done pretty good
on my first try." After pulling the frightened animal away from the
herd, she ties his legs together and gently pushes him over on his side.
Hazel's grandson holds the sheep's head in one hand, strokes the
animal's nose with his fingers, and speaks quietly in Navajo to calm
him. Hazel tells us: "When I was a young child, my job was just like my
grandson's. I had to hold the sheep's head to keep him quiet so that my
mother could shear."
Hazel takes her long metal shears and begins cutting wool in the sheep's
chest area. Over and over, the shears clip, cutting sections of the
animal's fleece free. After the wool is removed from the chest, she
snips the wool from the shoulders and hind legs. Shearing the fleece
with one hand, she holds the solid wool piece in the other. With one
side finished, Hazel and her grandson flip the sheep over.
When the second side is shorn, Hazel gives the sheep a pat on the back
and unties his legs. The sheep jumps up, shakes, and trots off to the
herd, baaing loudly. Hazel laughs and says, "Oh, he is calling his
friends and telling them that he is clean and nice and cool." She wraps
the wool into a bundle and stuffs it into a bag. "Now let's go back to
my house and clean it."
Inside, Hazel begins the washing of the wool. She shakes the fleece
vigorously, spreads it on the floor, and picks out small burrs and
sticks. At last, she speaks. "The sheep can pick up lots of stuff while
they are grazing. This coat is very dirty, so it needs to be cleaned
with soap and water." After dumping a bucket of water into a washtub,
she throws the fleece in with it and lets the wool soak. She empties the
dirty water and repeats this cold-rinse process four times. Next, Hazel
washes the fleece, adding warm water from the kettle on the stove. This
time she uses detergent, rinses the fleece, and hangs it out on a nearby
fence. After a few hours, the warm Arizona sun has dried the fleece, and
it is ready for carding.
Carding is the process of straightening the wool fibers before they are
spun. Hazel uses two wooden tow cards -- flat paddles of plywood made
with wooden handles and metal teeth -- to comb the fleece. She sits on a
goatskin close to her house and takes up her tow cards and a small piece
of wool. She places the wool in the metal teeth of one card, and with
the other card begins to comb the fibers. Back and forth, Hazel
transfers the wool from one card to another, brushing the fibers until
they are straight. As she cards, she says: "It takes me about two weeks
to card enough wool for a rub. If you card slow, you never get tired.
You must always have to think that you are going to card or spin or
weave more. There is always a job to do." She continues carding until
the wool comes off the cards in fluffy strips called batts. "Pretty
soon, I'll have a nice big pile of soft wool ready to spin."
Throughout the next two weeks, Hazel cards all of her wool into a soft,
fluffy pile. Finally she declares, "The wool is ready for spinning."
Spinning transforms the carded batts into yarn; the spindle is the tool
used for this task. Hazel brings out her drop-spindle and a bag full of
batts. As she sits on the front step in the sun, where her dogs and cats
rest close by, she twirls the spindle once and attaches a yard of yarn
to show me how easily and smooth it goes around. She then picks up a
wool batt and attaches it to the tip of the spindle, spinning the stick
with one hand and tugging the fibers from the batt with the other. The
batt changes quickly into a thick, airy piece of yarn. She twists this
fat yarn around the spindle, making the yarn tighter. Hazel continues to
pull the yarn off the spindle with a downward motion, until it attains a
fine texture. All is quiet except for the humming of the spindle.
Hazel's hands appear to be dancing. She extends her feet in front of
her, with heels to the ground and toes in the air, wrapping the spun
yarn around them. She continues the spinning for several hours, then
stops for the day. She stands up. "I'll spin again tomorrow and maybe
the next day," Hazel says. "The spinning for one rug will take a couple
of weeks. Like I said before, when you weave, you always have a job to
After the wool is spun, it must be washed a second time. "You just can't
get it too clean," Hazel says. She pours water into a large kettle and
heats it on the stove. When the water is hot, she puts it into a metal
bowl, then adds some cold water to make it lukewarm. "If you wash the
wool in really hot water, it shrinks. The wool won't be any good. If it
shrinks, it gets coarse." She adds detergent to the water and soaks the
yarn. It blends with the soapsuds as Hazel swishes, rubs, and squeezes
it. "We used to use yucca to wash the wool. Today I use Tide. In the old
days, my grandma used yarn as big as her fingers because she never
washed it to make it clean. It would be fat from the dirt."
Hazel rinses the wool thoroughly after several washings. The last rinse
water is clean. "My water is clear because the wool is clean," she says
proudly. When she wrings the yarn with both hands, clean water falls to
the floor. "Now I'll hang it up to dry." Hazel takes the skeins of yarn
outside and walks toward her juniper post fence. "This is my drying
fence. I'm going to wrap the wet, wet wool around the fence posts so the
wool will dry." She attaches the yarn to one fence post and walks back
and forth, wrapping the yarn from that fence post to the next. A slight
breeze moves the yarn as it dries on the fence.
After wrapping the wool, Hazel says, "Next, I check for lumps and then
take them off the wool." Her fingertips run along the wool, removing the
small bumps. "I wrap the yarn so it stretches and becomes all the same
size. If you don't stretch the yarn, then it comes out fat and thin. It
can really change sizes on you, and that doesn't make for weaving a good
Hazel begins the long task of unwinding the dry, clean yarn after
removing the knots from the wool. Back and forth she walks, looping the
yarn around her hand and arm. As she removes the skein from her elbow
and loops it over to form a neat bundle, she says, "Like I told you
before and I'll tell you again, there is lots to do when you weave."
Hazel's wool has been sheared, washed, carded, spun, and washed a second
time. The next step is to dye it. She uses several different methods to
obtain her variety of colors. She may create natural wool tones from
blending the light and dark aniline dyes, or she often uses plant dyes
made from bark, roots, and fruit. Occasionally, Hazel might use
store-bought dye, but, she explains: "I like to dye using the things
from the land. Sometimes we spend all day gathering plants to use for
the dyes. I take my grandkids, and we have a picnic. You can make lots
of different colors from the plants and things." Hazel takes great
delight in this aspect of the weaving process.
She plans to use shades of white, gray, black, red, and brown in her
next rug. "The white and black are easy. They just come from black and
white sheep. For brown, I use wild walnuts. The red dye I buy from the
store." She has traveled to Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona, more than 200
miles from her home, to collect the walnuts. "I let those nuts soak
overnight, and then I boil them in the morning, maybe for two hours. The
water turns dark, dark brown. I add the wet yarn and boil it some more.
I take it off the heat and let it soak and cool; it soaks for a few
days. Then I take it out of the pot and rinse it until I know the dye is
stuck into the yarn. I let it dry and then wind it up into a ball. It is
ready for the weaving."
Hazel enters the weaving shed and stands by her loom. "This is it! This
is where I do my work, my weaving work." The large pi–on [pine] posts of
the loom are notched together to form a rectangle; the heavy lower posts
act as a base.
Hazel Nez threads her loom.
As she prepares the loom, Hazel explains, "The first thing I do is
string the warp threads onto the warp frame." The warp threads are the
foundation of the rug, and the warp frame is a separate piece of the
loom, complete with two posts and two crosspieces.
She measures the warp frame with a tape measure to ensure that the
crosspieces are even before taking the warp thread and wrapping it from
one crosspiece to the other in a figure 8 pattern. Back and forth, Hazel
wraps the yarn. Over and under, she moves the threads in a smooth
rhythm. This figure 8 motion creates two sheds, which are actually two
sets of warp threads separated by the alternating pattern. She passes a
piece of string through the sheds as a marker and laces the warp to
wooden dowels, anchoring it firmly to the loom.
Hazel now sits down to weave. She picks up the cross-yarn, called the
weft, and feeds it through the warp sheds. She weaves the yarn in and
out and packs it down with a weaving comb. Her fingers work quickly. At
one point, she stops. "I like to build the yarn and make rugs," she
tells us. "My old man, who died a few years ago, made this comb for me.
It is ironwood and is very hard." Hazel resumes her motion, and all is
quiet except for the snap of the warp threads and the thumping of the
comb against the yarn. After a few hours, she has woven several inches
of the black border of the rug. "Now it is starting to look like
something," she says.
She spends most of her daylight hours weaving, and by the end of three
weeks the rug is nearly finished. With only three more inches to go, it
hangs on the loom. Her storm pattern is intricate. Its blacks, grays,
and browns contrast beautifully with the reds and whites. Like most
Navajo weavers, Hazel keeps the designs in her mind, weaving the inner
patterns according to her own expectations.
Hazel is anxious to finish the storm-pattern rug, so she asks a neighbor
to help. "The end is the hardest part," she explains. "The strings are
so tight." The neighbor wraps the yarn loosely around a thin stick and
passes it through the warp strings. Hazel pulls the yarn through a small
section of threads with her fingers. "My sticks," she remarks, "are all
slicky. The lanolin from the wool makes them that way. I used all
different sizes of sticks to feed the yarn. The smallest are for the
ends." Soon the warp strings are so tight that she can no longer fit the
sticks into the sheds. "It's time to use my needle," she states. She now
uses a table fork instead of a comb to press the yarn down. "The forks
are smaller and help me push down the wool very, very hard. My aunt
taught me about the fork. It works well when the amount to weave gets
The hours pass, the neighbor leaves, and Hazel continues to work at the
loom. As evening approaches, the weaving shed grows cold. She stops only
to light the lantern and build a fire. A soft glow fills the room, and
all is quiet except for the crackling of the fire. Although it seems
that there is not a bit of space left to weave, Hazel adds additional
yarn to the rug. She says: "You know, you sew it up until the threads
don't show. You can't cheat and leave a hole." Over and over, Hazel
continues to squeeze the yarn through the minute space. She starts to
laugh. "I sometimes don't eat anything all day long. I just sit and
weave. I put my hands on magic automatic!" At last, all the spaces are
filled, and with a broad smile, Hazel says: "It is done. The dance with
my hands is over." She sits back to admire her rug.
Hazel stands up, stretches, and removes the rug from the loom. Using a
knife, she cuts the strings from the warp beams and with short tugs
pulls them out. Next, she goes outside and shakes the rug in the
moonlight to remove any dust. Inside the house, Hazel lays the rug
across her bed, takes out a wire brush, and runs it quickly over the
finished work. This brisk movement makes the surface of the yarn smooth.
After a few minutes, she stops and holds up her creation. Hazel's voice
and posture show signs of weariness, but she is proud of a job well
done. "I'm worn out! I'm glad this is done," she sighs. "I'll sleep