The Navajos:


Roy's brown sheep is being sheared by hand by an expert Navajo woman rancher here at his
Sheep Is Life Celebration held in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona at the school in Summer, 2002.  Many
children on the Navajo Reservation grow up nowadays without knowing how to do this.  This was
an educational day for the students organized by Roy.  He called it a "mini Sheep Is Life
Celebration", a prelude to the large Sheep Is Life Navajo Shepherd and Weavers Celebration held
annually at Tsaile, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, on the Dineh College campus there.  This is
the same fleece which we process into weaving yarn in this story.
Here I am with Hannah Howard at Roy's Teec Nos Pos corral during the mini Sheep Is Life Celebration.  Hannah is a Teec Nos Pos Navajo weaver.  She was one of my two Navajo weaving teachers at the weaving class I took at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, Colorado, June 1995. As in the old days, wool work was and still is a communal affair on the Navajo Reservation.  Here I
am with both of my Navajo weaving teachers from my weaving class in 1995: Daisy Ute, who is Roy's clan grandmother and who introduced my wife and me to Roy on New Year's Eve, 1995; and Hannah Howard, the other weaving class teacher.  Both of these Teec Nos Pos weavers are highly accomplished and excellent teachers.  We are in Roy's and his mother's kitchen in their Teec Nos Pos home, preparing a big lunch for friends who were attending the mini Sheep Is Life Celebration.

The bucket of water is soapy from rinsing the raw yucca roots, with the raw, 
unprocessed yucca alongside.
Shima and I are washing the wool.

    The processing of a raw wool fleece into weaving yarn is routine among the Navajo shepherds and weavers, or at least it once was.  Many folks are curious about the details of this procedure.
    So I asked my Navajo weaving friend Roy Kady of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona ( on the Navajo Reservation only 60 miles southwest of Cortez Colorado, to show and teach us the steps involved.  His Mother (she is "shi ma" in Navajo language) helped too.  She is an experienced elderly weaver who commented on the techniques and myths associated with each step.  We did this September 5th and 6th, 2002 at our Lodge in Space near Cortez, Colorado.
    A dark brown, mixed-breed sheep of Royís was sheared by hand by an experienced Navajo woman using hand shears.  The sheep is hog-tied for this step and it took her about 10 minutes.  Royís mother then "skirted" the fleece, which means removing the perimeter wool which is the dirtiest and matted, leaving the cleaner wool for the following processing steps.  The skirted wool is useful for felting.  Some Navajo weavers cover their sheep with a blanket; this keeps the fleece much cleaner and prevents sun bleaching of dark colored fleeces.
    Yucca roots were dug up by Roy near his home.  They turned out to be very good ones, yielding lots of soap to wash the fleece.  We first rinsed off the root pieces then removed the bark from the roots by pounding it with rocks and hammers.
Both Roy and shi ma are knocking the bark 
off the yucca using stones and hammers.
Iím knocking the bark off the yucca here.

    The bark is discarded, leaving thick,white, slippery, tuberous roots.  We used a couple roots which was more than sufficient to wash this one fleece.  The yucca is further macerated by hand after each wash to separate the fibers, allowing greater soap yield with re-use.  We used the same roots 4 times.  After that, plenty of root remained for future washing.  It is a good idea to filter the soapy water through a cheese cloth prior to washing the wool in it, to keep root fibers out of the fleece.
    Yucca soap is prepared only in cold water.  It will not form suds in warm water, but some hot water can be mixed into the cold soapy water after the suds are formed.  The suds probably trap a lot of oxygen which helps in cleaning.  You want to dunk the dirty fleece slowly, and lift and dunk it repeatedly.  Rapid agitation will cause the wool to felt and become useless for spinning.  When removing the fleece from the soap bath, gently squeeze the dirty water out of it and rinse it in cold water if desired.
Shi ma is making soapy water with the yucca in the water while Roy is fluffing and separating the fleece into 2 batches for washing. Shi ma and Roy are washing a batch of the fleece by dunking it over and over.
Roy is making a second batch of soapy water with the yucca while shi ma pounds and macerates yucca root after its first use. Shi ma is breaking up the yucca root after its been used, to make more soap with it.  This is done after each use.  Itís very pliable in this soaked state, but dries to a hard, brittle fiber.

    We washed this fleece in 2 batches, twice each batch.  If your fleece comes from a sheep which has been blanketed, you can sometimes use the fleece without washing, or wash it only one time.  Some debris remained in the fleece.  Much of it falls out in the subsequent procedures of pulling, carding and spinning.
    After washing the wool is completed, the fleece is spread out in the sun to dry.  The yucca root is dried in a breezy, shady spot which preserves it for future use.  Roy told me that the yucca should be dried in the shade.  Exposure to direct sunlight takes the sudsy elements from the root and deprives the root of its cleansing properties.
Roy is spreading out the wet, washed wool fleece to dry in the sun. The yucca is drying in the shade for future use. Two batches of cleaned dried wool from a single sheep are now ready for pulling apart, carding and spinning.  They are sitting overnight to thoroughly dry.

    The dried fleece is pulled apart into small bunches, ready for carding.  Roy told me the children are good for helping with this job.  It takes a lot of time.  The ready availability of many hands is obviously important for the entire process.  It is always a social occasion, serving to bond the participants.
    The small, spread out and pulled apart bunches of wool are placed on the card as shown by Roy. It is then carded to worst the fibers (straighten and align them) while debris continues to drop out of the wool.  Carding is a lot of work and take some practice.  After sufficient order is imparted to the randomized wool fibers, they are rolled off the card into a rolag (also called a "roving") and set aside, ready for spinning.  If you want "worsted" wool yarn, then you roll the fluff off of the card sideways so when itís spun, the direction of the fibers are in alignment with the spin.
Roy has put the right amount of pulled apart fleece on his card to card it.

    Attach the rolag to the top of the spindle by piercing a spread out end of the rolag and tying it around the spindleís tip, pushing it down the spindle to tighten the knot since spindles get thicker toward the disc.  This step of spinning a rolag in to yarn is one of those acquired arts & crafts skills.  Photos show some of my results with the spun wool on my spindle.  You can see how uneven it is!  This was my first attempt.
    Royís yarn is shown as a separate strand.  Some of it "Navajo-plied" (3-ply Navajo style, spun using only his hands and not the spindle).  The close-up yarn photos also give you some idea of the resultant chocolate brown color yarn.  The great artistic attractions of handspun native yarns are the color variations within a single yarn and the textures.
    "Navajo plying" is a simple, time consuming, hand-spinning technique.  As a restorer I see 3-ply yarns only on occasion, mostly in the end cords of very good rugs but sometimes as selvage cord too.  It is more common in old ethnographic weavings and good saddle blankets.  The 3-ply yarn is probably at least 50% stronger than the common 2-ply, by some analytical measurement.  Roy "Navajo-plies" his end cords for most of his weavings since that is the way he was taught to weave.  Not surprisingly, many of the Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa weavers still use "Navajo-plied" yarn for their end cords.  Use of this technique indicates an accomplished weaver.
The cards, my spindle with my first attempt at spinning raw fleece on it, a bunch of the unprocessed fleece, and Royís handspun "Navajo 3-plied" yarn spun from one rolag. Close view of my unevenly spun yarn and Royís "Navajo 3-plied" yarn.
Close up of Royís spun yarn which has been partially "Navajo plied" into 3 ply yarn (some 2 ply may remain here too), all performed by hand on his knee without use of the spindle.  The fluffy end you see is the remainder of the rolag (i.e., how the wool looks as it is rolled off the card).



Out There    The Navajos

Copyright 2003 by Indiana Watson's Indian Weaving.  All rights reserved