Reading The Dress
For the Navajo (also known as the Diné or the Naabeehó), weaving was not just a mechanical construction of clothing. On the contrary, many Navajo weavers sewing their individual masterpieces “envisioned an entity with a life of its own” (Thomas 33). Their woven art was, the Navajo knew, imbued with “healing power[s]”—an innate aspect of every piece of Native art (Walters 29). Weavers believed they were giving life to their product, and a deep connection was formed between the Navajo and their garment—a connection of “love and desire” (Thomas 33). “Love” describes the passionate affect the Navajo had with the clothing. “Desire” encompasses the weaver’s want to create, forgoing the simple need to make a profit. Wesley Thomas describes this desire as a “continuous craving and longing for weaving to continue endlessly” in her life (35). What happens, then, when such “cravings” must become pragmatic and disciplined choices, where the creation of a live, love-filled object is no longer possible? This is the case of a particular Navajo dress that was likely constructed in a Native American Boarding School.
Under the regiment of Native American Boarding Schools, such as the early Haskell Institute, the Navajo were forced to separate organic spirituality from craftsmanship. Picture the following: It is 1884, and you are a Navajo woman. You are isolated from your tribe, forced to cut your hair (a symbolic tie to your culture), required to wear Western clothing, and ultimately, still sew dresses in the way your grandmother taught you. These female weavers undoubtedly experienced conflicting emotions: they were placed in a situation where they were forced to simultaneously erase their culture while still mass producing representative Native objects.
This dichotomous position creates a tension between the Navajo art and Western mass production. But despite such tension, the product still came into existence. So, what can we untangle about certain Navajo objects created in the boarding school system?
Take for example the Navajo wearing dress. This two-piece, Navajo-style wearing dress (ca. 1850-1860) is constructed from two separate rectangular, hand-woven panels; as already described, the dress was most likely created by a Navajo woman in the boarding school system. The warp material is a 3-ply wool yard, in a dark green or dull green color. Additionally, there are four different woof materials: hand spun blue (indigo dye) wool, hand spun black (native dye) wool, three-ply commercial blue (indigo dye) yarn, and bayeta-style red (cochineal dye) wool. Bayeta is a style of weaving where the sewer utilizes a spool of yarn that has been sewn and undone from a prior garment; thus, for a Navajo woman working in the limited conditions given to her in the boarding school system, this style was likely to have been used.
Often in the Navajo style of sewing, a “spirit line” is created so that the object would “not be perfect” (Walters 31). This could be created as a literal line through the garment that disrupts the linear flow of the item, or more generally, the spirit line could be any sort of imperfection. At first glance, our Navajo dress appears symmetrical; however, under closer inspection of the reoccurring terraced-edge pattern, we can see such a spirit line.
Throughout the wearing dress, the terraced edge pattern appears eight times—four on each panel of the dress. Six of the occurrences contain thirteen “box pyramids” (which appear as black, box-like pyramids) and two of the occurrences contain fourteen instances of this pattern. Although this may have been unintentional, it is more likely that this was the woman’s attempt to create a spirit line, an imperfection in her art.
What does this imperfection tell us? One possible explanation could be the sheer number of garments women had to produce while in the workshop; this option does not reflect the Native tradition of creating a spirit line, but rather, the living situation these women endured. An alternate answer could indeed be that the weaver intentionally made imperfections to create a spirit line. This particular explanation contains a layer of intrigue: Could this woman have been resisting the system of oppression to which she was forced to endure? As this particular aspect to weaving was most likely not taught to the women in the workshop setting, a spirit line could indicate a tie between the woman and her culture—a tie not broken by her entrance into the boarding school. Regardless of the nature of its occurrence, this imperfection either indicates the weaver was in an unjust situation or perhaps, attempted to push against the Western system in which she was placed.