The classic serape was the culmination of a century and a half of progress and growth in Navaho textile tradition. The Navajo learned to weave during the latter part of the 17th century from the Pueblos, who had been weaving cotton and other fabrics for hundreds of years. When the Spanish settled in the Southwest (from 1598) they introduced European treadle looms, Churro sheep to supply wool, and blue indigo dye. Churro wool and indigo blue soon became a part of the Pueblo weaving tradition. When the Navajo learned to weave they took over the Pueblo upright loom and weaving techniques, as well as cotton, wool, and indigo dye.
The earliest textiles woven by the Navajo were like those of the Pueblos, one-piece manta dresses, shirts, and blankets. Decoration largely consisted of stripes of many types, and by the 1700s, the Navajo began to weave serape-style blankets. They mastered the techniques of tapestry weaving enabling them to weave far more complex designs. Their designs, based on terraced triangles and stepped zigzags, had long been used by the Navajo in decorating their finely coiled baskets.
This rare wearing blanket was collected in the late 19th century by Eliza Hosmer, who spent time in New Mexico. Hosmer amassed a remarkable collection of Navajo textiles, numbering between forty and fifty examples. Around 1932, William Claflin acquired this example from Hosmer’s niece, Anne Lauriat Read, who had received it as a gift from her aunt. While the bulk of William Claflin’s southwest textile collection was given to the Peabody Museum, Harvard, this example was gifted to members of his family.
The textile is in pristine condition and was possibly made before the Bosque Redondo episode in 1863. It contains Saxony yarns and handspun Churro fleece dyed with cochineal and indigo. This textile embodies all the characteristics of early Classic Navajo serapes; horizontal design layout incorporating narrow bands, with three wider joined terraced diamond devices between, the larger being in the middle of the blanket. This configuration of larger central diamonds is often used in serapes of this period. With three concentric terraced elements top and bottom, the central device in each is surmounted by a small cross. The predominate colors of red, blue, and white add to the appearance of complexity and the use of the Saxony yarn creates an extremely tight weave in a longer-than-wide format. This rare and exceptional weaving is a high point of Navajo craft.