Moab History: The Navajo Serape

Germantown Bayeta Serape from the John and Louisa Wetherill Collection on display at the Moab Museum as part of the current exhibition “The People’s Tapestry: Weaving Tradition in Navajo Culture.”

“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?

This summer, the Museum has featured a variety of distinct Navajo textile designs. But, as many of you might be aware, some textiles are also worn. Serapes (Spanish for “blanket”) are long, rectangular textiles woven vertically on the loom, which primarily date back to 1840-1860. Most serapes are woven in simple palettes of red, white, and blue, with yellow and green accents. Later period serapes were woven between 1865-1880, in what Is known as the late classic period, and often feature more complex designs and motifs. 

These Navajo textiles derive influence from Mexican ponchos, specifically the highly functional Saltillo blanket. Documented to have originated from Aztec culture in the 1500s, Saltillo blankets were woven from colorful fibers dyed using insects and fruits. They were believed to bring favor from the gods and ward off evil spirits. Saltillo blankets were worn primarily by men, and often while on horseback. 

Navajo serapes may have been too delicate for the abuse of horseback riding, but were nonetheless worn in everyday life, by both men and women, though primarily by men. Unlike the poncho or the Biil (a Navajo garment featured in last week’s Moab History column), Serapes are designed to wrap around the wearer’s shoulders, instead of being pulled over the head.

This men’s wearing blanket was crafted from commercially spun Germantown yarn. “Germantown” yarn was imported from wool mills in Pennsylvania between 1864 and 1910 and was shipped to the reservation where weavers would buy or barter for it at their closest trading post. These yarns added a broad array of bright colors to their weaving designs. The Navajo word for shoulder blanket is “awos beeldléí.” These blankets preceded rugs and were more delicate—lending themselves to wearing. 

This article was originally published in the Moab Sun News on August 17, 2023.