Friday, April 30, 2010

Navajo Weaver Makes Rugs The Old-Fashioned Way

By Nathalie Nance
For the Mountain Mail

Isabel Thomas, 74, has woven Navajo rugs for almost 70 years, as she was just four years old when she started helping her mother, Dora Pino, with cleaning and carding the wool.
Now her rugs are represented in several museums in New Mexico and all over the country, including the Smithsonian. Most of her rugs are done in the eye-dazzling style with its characteristic diamond shapes, but she has also experimented with the so called yeibechai design. The rugs are made the old-fashioned way with thicker wool, not the thinner machine-spun yarn. Thomas makes her rugs from scratch and dyes and spins the wool herself.

Consequently, most of her rugs feature a rich spectrum of warm earth tones. A brown wild nut gives a really dark brown, while the wild tea plant turns out a lighter yellowish brown. Coffee, walnut, onions and several different roots and flowers are some of the plants Thomas uses for dyeing.
“There is one flower that looks almost like the sweet potato plant, that I go down to San Antonio to pick on the side of the river,” says Thomas.
However, before the wool can be dyed and turned into soft yarn, there is the tedious and time-consuming work with cleaning the wool. It takes several rinses, a good soak and then several rinses again before it can be put out to dry in the sun.
“I use Pine-Sol, dish soap and hot, clean water and let it set for two days,” says Thomas. “When the wool is clean I hang it on a fence to dry. Every now and then I shake it a bit to make it fluffy.”
She was born and grew up on the Alamo reservation, but when Thomas was 12, she moved to Albuquerque, where she attended boarding school. When she came home during the summers, she kept helping her mother working with the wool. By then she had learned to spin. At 22, she got a job at the Magdalena boarding school dormitory and moved there. However, her mother managed to send her wool, and in the evenings, or whenever she had a little spare time, she weaved in her little room.
“That’s when I really started weaving my way”, says Thomas.
When she got married to William Thomas, he made her a loom, which she still uses. Besides hundreds of rugs over the years, she has also made saddle blankets, pillows, table runners, place mats, pillows, sash belts and chief blankets. Thomas turned to her beloved wool even for Christmas ornaments, when she made wool angels.
When Thomas is starting on a new rug, she first decides which size it is going to be, so that she knows how much yarn she will need. “I have an image in my mind”, she says as to answer the question of how she comes up with the patterns. “You can’t weave if you are too tired or in a bad mood, because then it doesn’t turn out right,” she adds.
Thomas always finishes the rugs she has started, but sometimes it has happened that she has ripped part of it up and redone it, if it didn’t turn out the way she wanted to. And sometimes she has changed the pattern, if she realized she didn’t have enough yarn in a particular color.
Now Thomas is one of the few remaining weavers in the area, who makes Navajo rugs in the truly traditional way. She taught weaving to some girls at the Magdalena dormitory, but only a few kept at it.
She also taught her daughter, Marlene Herrera, the basics. Herrera, who is the director of the Alamo Navajo Community Services, says she would very much like to take up weaving herself, but so far she hasn’t had the time to sit down. Weaving on this level is too complex to do just a little now and then. Instead, Herrera does bead work. However, she has documented the whole rug-making process on videotape.
There are no short cuts. As Herrera’s husband and Thomas’s son-in-law, Stanley Herrera puts it: “It starts with the sheep, otherwise it is not authentic.”

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