Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
The four days during which Marie and Ninaba imbibed the strength of their paintings have been days of quiet mental work and relaxation. I leave White-Sands to get the saddle-blanket patterns from Mr. Short-Pants and Mr. Little-Man-with-the-Spectacles. They live at Thoreau, a place on the railroad a few miles east of the Continental Divide. Many of the Navajo women know how to make the more modest, dull blankets, but since the American buying public wants something more striking for "Papa's study," they do not generally receive much encouragement to bring them in. In fact, few of the traders know they are different, almost none know what the differences are. The blankets require great care in counting, not only when the warp is strung up but even during the entire time they are being woven. The Navajo make them for their men-folk, by whom they are duly appreciated and used.
The traders at Thoreau have for two years been collecting looms with unfinished webs. The very day I announce myself sees me established in their blanket room surrounded by blankets of all kinds and the many looms. I can draw plans for stringing and weaving in my notebook without actually setting up and weaving each pattern. At Red-Point's I progressed from one step to another by having the women show
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
COOK SHADE FOR WAR DANCE
Click to enlarge
me. Often I did not know what my goal was. My learning was always particular. And so it would be here too, had not these gentlemen taken the trouble for several years to secure information on the different rugs as they came in, ever finding new surprises, even in a business long followed.
The difference between these weaves and the ordinary kind I have learned is that the design in these depends upon elaborate stringing of the warp. We have used so far only two healds making two sheds, and we have secured all the variation in our designs by manipulation of the weft. Because of that manipulation, we have, too, always achieved the same design on both sides of our rugs. I see that these weaves, new to me, depend upon the way the warps are strung, all of them carefully counted in varying series and looped, on two, three, or four healds. The weft is usually a three-color combination, although it need not be. Each of the three weft strands is carried across the entire width of the blanket as the healds are thrown. It is necessary, then, for me to mark in my diagrams the number and order of the threads on each of the healds, and to note the alternation of the weft strands.
The design resulting from the combination of different sheds and variation of weft color in the most complicated is a diagonal. It may be varied by different shifts almost indefinitely, but it remains the basic design. Another division of the sheds thrown in the proper order for a given distance, then reversed, results in a diamond, large or small depending entirely upon the number of warps in the set-up. It is not difficult from these loom models to grasp the essentials of the shedding quickly. It is necessary in addition to dissect the weft throwing. Since the loom models are loose, it is easy enough to push up the wefts row by row and coördinate them
with the healds. But I find I must do this for a goodly number of rows, depending of course upon the size of the diamond. For, after half the shape of the diamond is secured, the order of throwing the sheds is reversed to form the second half.
I work on these patterns, advancing from the simpler to the more complex. I am occasionally puzzled by the fact that the warps as strung do not correspond to them as woven. In such case, Mr. Short-Pants finds me a second model. He has no duplicates for one or two, and I decide to leave them until I know more.
I am now ready for practical work. Mr. Short-Pants takes me to see Mrs. Kinni's-Son. She lives only two miles north of Thoreau. We find her weaving at a loom set up under a tree. The family is a dull one, but the setting is even more colorful than White-Sands. There is a piñon-dotted plain extending from steep redstone cliffs which stand like a bulwark about a mile behind the settlement. The place is well watered, the grass grows bright green and thick over the red sand ground. The view is brilliant, far, and clean.
The tree under which the large loom stands is in front of a rude structure of planks, a house unlike that of whites or Navajo. In this house the cooking is done. A few paces south is another building somewhat like it, the boards of its sides and roof so placed as to leave large cracks through which the sun filters temperamentally. There is a stove in the center of the building, and a loomframe at the north side.
Mrs. Kinni's-Son is weaving a blanket such as we have come to talk about. Her daughter, a handsome half-grown girl, sits near her, carding and observing us smilingly. Mr. Short-Pants explains that I want Mrs. Kinni's-Son to set me up a loom for which I will pay the same price he pays her at the post. Besides
[paragraph continues] I will pay her five dollars a week for teaching. After the blanket is strung up, she will not have to work at it, but can card or spin while I am weaving. We emphasize the fact that this way she will be able to earn more than twice what she would with her own weaving. She agrees, although her expression shows she does not quite comprehend.
As we sit longer and watch her weaving, her husband comes up. He is not cordial like Red-Point, but has rather an attitude of "What are you doing here?" He is of medium stature and stocky, good-looking, but lacks the friendly appeal I have come to admire in the Navajo. We explain our plan to him, talk a little on other things, explain it again. He has a son who speaks English; so if we come to a discussion too involved for my Navajo talents, he will interpret. We agree, after more and longer argument about money, that I may start work tomorrow. I have the feeling I shall not become attached to this family in any way. I shall learn my lessons, pay my money, and be done.
I arrive next day to find the women busy preparing yarn. Kinni's-Son is not home. Mrs. Kinni's-Son has warp, and at once sets up a blanket. It is a little less than three hands wide by less than four long. It does not take her long to string it or to twine the end finish. She deftly fastens the movable loom to the loomframe in the house. Then she seats herself before it and starts to count out the threads for the heald loops.
Although she has set up dozens of these blankets, her procedure is one of experimentation. Carefully counting, she takes up threads on her batten. When she has cast it through the entire width she inserts a reed and withdraws the batten. She makes the first two sheds rather fast. But she finds the count for the third wrong and tries again.
I watch her intently. I have my notebook open at my diagram for this pattern, and I know which warps she should take up. But she has made many of these blankets, and I want to see how she does it. She tries and fails a number of times and at last, discouraged, has her daughter at it. The daughter has been watching for a time and giving oral suggestions. She now trades places with her mother, flips the threads and separates them surely and expertly, each group for its rod. It does not take her more than about twenty minutes to get them in order. Her mother then fastens the proper paired or single threads into the loops over the heald rods. At last the sheds may be thrown. It has taken her at least an hour and a half to do this part of the work.
She weaves a few rows to illustrate for me the order of inserting the woof threads, and of throwing the sheds, then hands the comb to me. I note particularly that she pounds down the yarn with her batten, a proceeding Marie forbade when I first started to weave. In every case we shall throw the weft clear across the width of the warp so that we have each color wound on a reed, and our work proceeds rapidly. I must keep in mind the order of the sheds to be thrown and coordinate that series with the proper sequence of weft colors. If I make no mistakes for this blanket I will get a cleancut row of diagonal lines, white, black, gray, white, black, gray.
Mrs. Kinni's-Son is not nearly as intelligent as Red-Point's women, but in some respects she is a better teacher for she throws me on my own responsibility. I weave along, making occasional mistakes which I take out, but withal my progress is apparent. It is surprising how one has to concentrate on the order of this type of weaving. I think it is because I am new at it, but Mr. Short-Pants tells me that all the women he
knows become impatient, even angry, if someone talks to them while they are making these weaves. This fact alone, in the face of the Navajo liking for visiting and conversation, may account, I think, for the scarcity of these blankets in trade.
Mrs. Kinni's-Son does not feel it necessary to watch my every move and leaves me to my own devices. About eleven o’clock there is a stir in the other house, and soon the delicious smoke of burning cedar assails my nostrils. The girls have started the midday meal. When I get hungry I move my car with its contents toward the red cliffs and have my brief lunch. I return to my work to find the women all busy preparing yarn. I arrived at a time when they had none ready. I hear the rhythmic scratch scratch of the towcards in the strong hands of one of the girls, and the busy comfortable whir of Mrs. Kinni's-Son's spindle as it rapidly twirls on the hard ground. I add to the chorus the regular thud of my comb at the weaving.
I had intended to have Mrs. Kinni's-Son set me up a loom for each type of stringing. But I have made a two-inch stripe of diagonals leaning from right to left; I have reversed the healds and achieved the same kind of a stripe which leans from left to right. Another band of diagonals leaning in the opposite direction convinces me I have mastered this lesson. There are imperfections, of course, but I want to understand principles. I shall doubtless never weave enough to become wholly expert. I shall be contented with understanding. Not of course because I do not have dozens of patterns in my head, but because I have too many things to do.
I am thinking these things with a sigh of resignation when Kinni's-Son comes in with his son. He starts in on a long argument which is to have almost daily repetition, and the
burden of which is: "This kind of weaving is hard. Not many women know how to do it. You ought, therefore, to pay my wife a large sum for having her teach you."
I point out that, while she is teaching me, she is getting more than any of the educated girls who are working, and at the same time she can be working for herself. I try to be patient as I explain these things. These people live near the railroad. They have been exploited for years by white people. They are on the defensive against exploitation but they really have no defense. "You will learn to weave, and you will teach the white women to weave so that the Navajo women won't be able to earn money any more."
I should not be able to suppress a smile if another white person or even Marie were with me, but alone as I am, it seems too pathetic to be funny. I tell him how my family would starve if they depended on my weaving for a living. I tell him how bad and how slow I am at spinning. After a time he is silenced but not convinced. Again we go over, detail by detail, the amount I am going to pay his wife. He is very insistent, and I continue to elucidate. I tell him I make a point never to pay before a job is done. As soon as this blanket comes down, I will pay his wife for it, just as the trader would if she brought it to the post. If, before the time comes, a week goes by, I will pay her five dollars for teaching me.
Luckily for me, Kinni's-Son is not home every day. But every day he is there we go through exactly the same performance. His wife seems to like to have me there. She "shows" me all about the weaving, she cheerfully corrects my Navajo, she sits behind me and spins sociably as I work. When I pay her the first time, her son tells me "she is glad." My surmise, corroborated by white observers and other Navajo,
is that Kinni's-Son is supported largely by the industry of his women, and he wants to be supported as well as possible.
I decide that, since I understand the principle of this first diagonal method there is no use in having a number of looms. I have the counts in my notebook, the coördination in my head. I will take the heald loops out of this one, restring them for another pattern, and have two or three designs on the same loom. I tell this to Mrs. Kinni's-Son and tell her I wish to arrange my own sheds. I follow her lead in picking up the threads on the batten, but I read the proper threads from my notebook. It takes me twenty minutes. As I do it she remarks to her daughter, "Her paper tells her."
After I have it finished I ask for her approval. She seats herself once more before the loom to try it out, and as she does so she says it is wrong. I argue with her and ask her where. She tests the pattern by weaving and sees the threads have the correct relationship warp to warp, weft to weft, warp to weft. She says no more, but she is bothered, I know, by the fact that I omitted a preliminary separation of the warp threads for which I can see no purpose.
The new pattern is a continuous succession of small concentric diamonds. One vertical row has a gray center diamond succeeded by a black and a red. The next vertical row which dovetails into it has a red center, and is surrounded by a red and a black diamond. On the opposite side the order is reversed as it is in all cloth where the weft is thrown through the entire width of the shed. I weave nearly a hand in this pattern. I understand it well, but a single mistake ruins the effect and I have made more than one. I want to get several rows of perfect diamonds at least.
I have told the Kinni's-Sons I am going to stay three or four
weeks. I had no idea how long it would take me to learn the weaves, and besides, I have a great many other things to do. On the third day I ask Mrs. Kinni's-Son to loop the healds for a third pattern on this set of warp. I can do it myself, I am confident, but I want to see if she always uses the method of trial and error or if she just got flustered the first day. I find that again she uses the same system, although it does not take her so long to get it right this time. Once more her daughter tells her where she is wrong after repeated trials.
There can be no doubt that she knows how the threads appear, and it is evident that she has not systematically memorized the counts. Each time she sets one up she must start from the very beginning.
When Kinni's-Son sees my progress, he is amazed and baffled. He starts on his long speech of fear about white competition. He has been driven by my speed in learning to the following peroration: "This is hard to learn. Not many persons know how to do this kind of weaving. It took my wife a long time to learn it. You have learned it so quick you ought to pay her five dollars a day instead of five dollars a week for teaching you."