"Like all fabrics woven for the Navajos own use the Navajo Chief Blanket was made to be worn, to drape around the human body, and to flow and move as the body itself moved. For the most part, the Chief Blanket was finely woven of the finest selection of wools available. It was basically simple in design and its beauty depended on the careful placement and the balance of design elements enhanced by the warm brown-black, the creamy white, and the glowing blues of indigo dye. When the fine crimson reds derived from raveled bayeta cloth were added the classic color scheme was complete.
Historically, the Chief Blanket is a development from Pueblo weaving. When the Navajo learned to weave some time in the latter part of the seventeenth century, they took over the Pueblo vertical loom with its closed warp system and all of the traditional weaving implements. It should not be surprising that the Navajo took over many of the traditional Pueblo blanket forms and weaves. Many Pueblo fabrics were woven wider than long, that is the warp dimension is less than that of the weft. The Pueblo one-piece manta dress was copied by the Navajo weavers. So, too, was the larger Pueblo man’s shoulder blanket which usually carried a pattern of simple stripes, often alternating stripes of white and black, but sometimes including indigo blue and native dyes. It was this basic shoulder blanket design that the Navajo developed into what is called the Chief Blanket. The earliest known Navajo Shoulder Blanket, which probably dates around 1750 is an archaeological specimen from a cave in Arizona, and is decorated by alternating black and white stripes near the ends. A half century later the style we call the Phase One Chief Blanket had had been developed for a fragment of one displaying the traditional wide black and white body stripes with wider end bands and a double wide band of black through the center. Paired stripes of indigo blue ran the length of the end and central bands. This classic pattern prevailed from sometime late in the 1700s until about 1850 when other patterns began to displace it.
Because they had no good red dye, by the late 1700s the weavers of the Southwest had turned to red bayeta cloth, provided by the Spanish, which they ravelled to obtain red wefts for their own weaving. Sometime during the lifetime of the Phase One style, perhaps about 1840, a few Navajo weavers began to outline the blue stripes with a narrow edging of crimson bayeta. These are very rare, for only about a dozen are known to survive. The earliest of these “Bayeta First Phase Blankets” were collected in 1851 and the bayeta had been dyed with lac dye. A few seem to have been woven at a later time, since the bayeta was dyed with cochineal which largely replaces lac dye after about 1860.
Two first phase blankets are in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, (no. 8-8-38 collected by Thomas Twiss at Fort Laramy about 1850 and no. 11-8280 collected by Dr. Samuel Woodhouse in 1851); both are lac dyed. One is in the School of American Research, Santa Fe, (no. 9118-12 collected by Stewart) and is cochineal dyed. Another also cochineal dyed, is in the collections of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston (a gift from 1902, no. 02-80). The American Museum of Natural History, New York, also has one (no. 50-990) which is also cochineal dyed and one is in the Maxwell Museum, Albequerque (no. 63.34.114 collected by Funston). The Lowe Art Museum in Miami had one which was deaccessionned. There are four blankets of the type in private collections: one in the collection of Mr. Tony Berlant, one owned by Mr. Jack Silverman, one owned by Mr. George Freeland and the Janss blanket."
Joe Ben Wheat's count does not include the subject example nor one that recently surfaced in California and is illustrated in Donald Ellis Gallery 12, 2012, New York, p. 91, pl. 35.
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