Navajo Saddle Blankets

 

A hundred years ago in the American West, if you had somewhere to go chances are you did so on horseback. A good saddle was a necessity, and beneath your saddle was a strong, thick saddle blanket, which helped protect the horse from the weight of its load. Chances are that your saddle blanket was made by a Navajo weaver; their work was sought after for its strength, durability, and beauty. A strong piece could last through years of use, while more intricate examples might have been put on display for decoration, an icon of western horse culture.

 

Saddle blankets have been produced and traded by Navajo weavers throughout the southwest for over 150 years. Woven as utilitarian items meant for heavy use, they convey the same sense of design and craft as seen in other fine Navajo weavings. Dismissed for years by dealers and collectors, and under-represented in museum collections, today they are among the most sought-after collectible Navajo weavings. Their new-found appreciation is long overdue.

Woven either as singles (typically 2’8” x 3’ square) or doubles (up to 3’ x 5’, used folded in half), these hard-wearing “utility” blankets were often designed to ‘frame’ the rider and their saddle. Their placement on the horse explains many of their design characteristics: Ornamental borders, corner designs and fringes would have been visible around the edges of saddle itself, and where the saddle would sit, either plain stripes or open blank fields filled in the center of the weaving. Viewed flat, many of these pieces can resemble elaborate frames around a blank center, or an “open window”. Many double saddle blankets were made with a plain half which would be folded under to sit on the horse’s back, and an elaborate ‘fancy’ half which would be visible around the edges of the saddle. Structurally, they were more coarse and thick than a typical wearing blanket, and as such were probably the first Navajo weavings to be used as rugs.

Double Saddle Blanket
Courtesy of Michael Smith Gallery, Santa Fe, NM

The many stages in the evolution of Navajo weaving can be seen in the saddle blankets: Early classic pieces (pre-1880) utilize indigo blue, red bayeta, and other vegetal colors in banded designs; colorful commercial Germantown yarns became available in the late 1800s and were integral to the development of “fancy”, “dazzler” and “Sunday” saddle blankets; the transitional period brought new materials such as mohair, aniline dyes, and trends such as twill weaving, which added cushion as well as decoration (and a technical challenge for the weaver); and the rug period of the 20th century brought ornamented borders, medallions, and pictorial elements.

Single saddle blanket,
Teec Nos Pos area ca.1930–40,
with traditional complex design utilizing numerous synthetic dye colors on handspun and commercial yarns. Courtesy of Colter Brooks Gallery

The history of saddle blankets speaks to the artistry and productivity of the weavers, but also to the role of the horse in the American west. As Lane Coulter explains in his book ‘Navajo Saddle Blankets: Textiles To Ride In the American West’, during the colonial period “the Navajo became a horse culture and, as such, were themselves the first clientele for (their) saddle blankets. But other markets soon developed...” The numbers of blankets produced for cowboys and other horseback riders would have been measured in the tens of thousands, and the Navajo’s work was considered among the finest and longest-lasting available. As the nation became more urbanized and ‘frontier’ life disappeared, Navajo saddle blankets became a material bridge between the modern world and the western horse culture of the recent past.
 

Within Navajo culture, the saddle blanket has been an item of status and pride. The “Sunday saddle” or “fancy” saddle blanket would have been woven with the highest skill level and the finest--and often brightest--materials. Elaborate borders in dazzling colors with added fringes and tassels would have electrified and elevated the horse’s rider. Sometimes initials (presumably the rider’s), ranch brands, pictorial elements or lucky talismans would have been woven in at the corners. The blankets often appear to have been used just once for a special occasion such as a rodeo or regional fair, then put away or hung for display. Like the finest classic blankets, it is these items, woven with such personal attention and care, which are the most sought after and treasured by collectors.

Double saddle blankets are approximately the same size as classic 19th century “Child’s” blankets, and there is some speculation that the old blankets may have been woven for the same purpose. While some classic pieces do show wear patterns indicative of saddle use, it is unlikely that this was their intended purpose--Child’s blankets are much thinner and finer than anything that would have been used under a saddle. There can also be confusion about the many smaller samplers, miniature rugs and “tourist” weavings that have been made since the late 1800s, which would not be classified as saddle blankets.

The new-found appreciation for the Navajo saddle blanket has come about through the efforts of a handful of dealers, scholars and collectors, and market values for old pieces have risen steadily. Books and catalogues by Lane Coulter and Joshua Baer (The Last Blankets) have helped define this new category, as will upcoming volumes by Ray Trotter ( Navajo Saddle Blankets, due out in 2011).

Double Saddle Blanket,
Bistee/Teec Nos Pos, ca. 1920s
Courtesy of R B Ravens Gallery
Ranchos de Taos, NM

Single Saddle Blanket “Sunday Saddle” Germantown yarns c.1890-1900
pictorial with letters copied
from trading post crates
Courtesy of Colter Brooks Gallery

As markets, socio-economic conditions, and available materials have changed over the years, Navajo weaving has gone through many transformations. From 19th century blankets to 20th century rugs to the fine tapestries of today, the landscape in which weavers have worked has constantly shifted. Only the saddle blanket has remained as a relative constant throughout that history, both as a commodity in the larger society and as an item in continuous daily use among the Navajo. As such, it is a fascinating living tradition that provides an open window into the artistry and culture of the past. In Coulter’s words, the “(saddle blanket) has well served the countless cultural and utilitarian demands placed on it over the last century and a half.”


 


Rufus Cohen is the proprietor of Textival Rug & Textile Workshop in Albuquerque

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 25


Related Pages

Indian Trade Blankets article

A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article

A Brief Social History of Navajo Weaving article

Textiles and Fiber Art of New Mexico,
A Chronology
article


Toadlena/Two Grey Hills Weaving article

Indigenous Perspectives on Indian Art article

Textiles as Artarticle

Indian Arts & Crafts Act article


Collector’s Resources

Albuquerque

Andrews Pueblo Pottery & Art Gallery pic 303 Romero NW #N116 | 505-243-0414
Cowboys & Indians Antiques | 505-255-4054
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The Navajo Rug, LLC pic 535 Los Ranchos Road NW | 505-897-5005
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Morning Star Gallery | 505-982-8187
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
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RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED June 21, 2011

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