The Pueblo people of Northern New Mexico were cultivating cotton around 1300 AD, which they used for weaving. They practiced finger weaving, and had also learned the use of the backstrap loom from Mexican Indian tribes.
Weaving was a man's activity in most pueblos. They wove in the kiva, or ceremonial room, a cramped space that inspired the invention of the upright loom. The arrival of the Spaniards and their Churro sheep in the 16th century led to a change from cotton to wool as weaving material for the Pueblo Indians as well as the Navajos, who learned the technique from their neighbors in the late 1600s. The Spanish also introduced indigo (blue) dye and simple stripe patterning.
Even before the influx of tourists, the railroads had had a major impact on the Indians of the Southwest by supplying goods to newly created trading posts; for groups such as the Navajo, who lived in scattered family settlements, this was particularly important. Traders also encouraged Navajo women to make their weaving more marketable with the introduction of new designs and aniline dyes that complemented Victorian drawing rooms in the East. For Eastern markets, Navajo women began to weave rugs instead of blankets; they had already replaced the blankets they wove for their own use with machine-made blankets from mills in Pendleton, Oregon.
Among the oldest products of Navajo weaving is the woman's dress, which uses two identically shaped and woven blankets to make a straight, sleeveless dress belted at the waist. Unable to obtain a red color from vegetable dyes, Navajo women prized bayeta (baize), which they unraveled and rewove in their own blankets. Through trade with Pueblo middlemen, and directly from Europeans during times of peace, the Navajo acquired this red flannel cloth, which was manufactured in England and transported to the Southwest by way of Spain and then Mexico.
In the early 1800s Navajo women began to weave chief's blankets, which were so widely traded that they were worn by Indians from the northern Great Plains to the Mexican border. Although not a badge of chieftainship, these blankets did symbolize power and affluence. Three phases of increasing complexity in design share an underlying structure based on broad black and white stripes, interspersed with bands of indigo blue, plain bars of bayeta red, or geometric figures, usually a serrated diamond.
Navajo women continued to express their ingenuity by creating blankets using the same basic design elements in new patterns, such as all-over or zoned geometric patterns with or without subtly striped backgrounds achieved by using two dark colors. In the mid-1800s, when Navajo women were captured by Mexicans, they learned to use Spanish dyes and designs, such as the large central diamond motif, to create "slave blankets." Sometimes called a Mexican Saltillo serape design, these stepped and wedge-edged geometric designs later combined with brilliant aniline dyes to create "eye dazzler" rugs.
Native Peoples of the Southwest. Contributors: Trudy Griffin-Pierce - author. Publisher: University of New Mexico Press. Place of Publication: Albuquerque. Publication Year: 2000. Page Number: 308.
THE FIRST BLANKET
(Told by Long Mustache of Klag-e-toh)
A long time ago at Blue House, near Kintyel, there was a Kisani woman that nobody wanted. Her father and mother were dead, so she went to the hohrahns of the Navajos and earned her living by grinding corn and cooking. She was a good-looking woman, but nobody seemed to want her for a wife, so she wandered from hohrahn to hohrahn.
One morning she went out to pick some gooseberries, but she was gone all day and picked only one basketful. She camped out that night and the next morning she started east. On the prairie ahead she saw smoke coming up from the ground and went to it. At the bottom of a little round hole she saw an old woman spinning a web. It was the Spider Woman, and when she saw a shadow over the hole she looked up and saw the Kisani woman.
'Come down into my house,' she said.
'The hole is too small,' said the girl.
'It is big enough,' replied the Spider Woman.
Then she blew up the hole four times and it opened out bigger and bigger until it became a wide passageway, with four ladders leading up to the top. On the east was a white ladder, on the south a blue one, on the west a yellow one, and on the north a black one.
The girl came down and sat by the Spider Woman who was weaving something. She had a stick about a foot long with a hole in one end like a needle and with this she passed the thread in and out, making the first kind of blanket, the Black Design Blanket (dith-thith-nah-kanc').
After she had finished what she was weaving, she went up to the top of the ground and, throwing her web up, she pulled the Sun farther to the west and came back. Soon she went up again and pulled the Sun lower until it was almost sunset. Then she told the girl the Sun was low and asked her to stay all night.
Just then the Spider Man came down the hole.
'Where is this earthly woman from?' he asked; 'and what is she doing here?'
'They hated her up there,' said his wife. 'That is why she goes around picking up things to get a living.'
The Spider Woman made some dumplings out of grass seeds and fed the girl and the next morning started another loom. She worked so fast that she finished it that day. It was square and as long as your arm and was called Pretty Printed Blanket. The girl watched her all day and stayed there all night, and the next morning the Spider Woman started another loom. She finished this blanket, which she called White Striped Blanket, that day, and on the fourth morning began another. This was a 'Beautiful Design Skirt' such as Yeibitchai dancers and Snake dancers wear, and was white with figures in black.