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Tradition Today: Time Among the Navajo

 "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."
photograph of rug being woven
The confident fingers of Hazel Nez.
A Navajo Rug
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. Nez.

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 do."

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 rug."

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."

photograph of rug being woven on loom
Hazel Nez threads her loom.
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.

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 small."

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 tonight."

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