Moab History: The Navajo Biil

This Biil, from the John and Louisa Wetherill Collection, was woven from red yarn/flannel called “bayeta,” worn with a belt or band around the waist [John and Louisa Wetherill Collection, no date].

“The People’s Tapestry: Weaving Tradition in Navajo Culture” is currently being exhibited at the Moab Museum, featuring a variety of styles of Navajo textiles, as well as renderings of the various ways textiles were used. In this column throughout the summer, the Museum team will feature a variety of weaving styles and their associated backgrounds and stories.  

This exhibition is a celebration of the magnificent weavings created by the Diné (which means “the people” in Navajo). The significance of Diné textiles transcends artistic expression; weavers beautify their world through the spiritual act of weaving and integrate their art into the web of everyday life. The Navajo weaver’s song declares, “with beauty, it is woven.”

How are Navajo weavings worn?

Throughout the summer, the Museum has featured a variety of distinct Navajo textile designs. Now, we explore a style of weaving that is worn. The Biil (pronounced “beel”) is a dress comprised of two identical panels (some say woven side by side) and then sewn together leaving openings for the neck and arms. The Biil, often referred to as a “rug dress,” was commonly worn by Navajo women prior to the “Long Walk,” which was the forced removal of Navajo peoples from their homelands by the US government in the 1860s. This time period was preceded by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, a treaty that positioned the United States to aggressively assume control of land in the Southwest, and thus the homelands of many Tribal Nations. 

The Biil is worn with a belt or band around the waist and is still worn today by Navajo girls and women for special occasions like graduations and weddings. The People’s Tapestry: Weaving Tradition in Navajo Culturefeatures two Biils: one from the John and Louisa Wetherill Collection, and another from the Kel Darnell and Marc MacDonald Collection, as well as a man’s serape, which is a distinct textile developed prior to the creation of Navajo rugs, and is worn draped across the shoulders.

Other than the sash belt, the Biil is one of two items still produced by Navajo weavers for personal wear, though they are rare and are not often woven for commercial purposes, like Navajo rugs. The oldest known example of this weaving, which features a more tightly-woven weave, was worn by  Juanita, wife of Chief Manuelito, around 1868.  

This article was originally published in the Moab Sun News on August 4, 2023.