An Unusual Navajo Dress Panel

The Discovery of an Unusual Navajo Dress Panel

I acquired an unusual single Navajo dress panel last week and I want to share it with you.  It is unusual in the variegations of the red yarns, the types of bayeta used, and the crenulations woven on the sides of the upper and lower segments. For those that get into the details of the yarns that make up a Navajo weaving, this piece is a wonderful curiosity that may create more questions than it answers, but this is exactly its allure.  Before I dissect the qualities of this weaving, let me give you some background on the Navajo dress.

A Short History of the Navajo Dress

The earliest Navajo dresses were single blankets called mantas, or shawls.  These are woven wider than long and likely derive from the earliest weavings coming out of the Pueblos.   The classic first phase Navajo blanket could be called a large manta, in that it is also woven wider than long. Mantas were wrapped around the body and tucked under one shoulder and over the other. It is believed that by the 18th century, a new type of dress came out of the manta design and that is the two paneled Navajo dress.  It was essentially the manta divided into two halves.  By 1804, when portions of dress panels were found at Massacre Cave, complex design patterns were already being used on these dress halves.  There would be a front panel and a back panel. The two panels were stitched together allowing openings for the arms and the head.  Rarely are the two panels of a early Navajo dress found together.  They are often separated and sold as individual panels.

What is a Navajo Dress Panel?

Navajo dress panels are, for the the most part, predictable in their design layout.  They are typically divided into three parts.  The upper and lower parts are the same, separated by a middle area consisting of natural brown yarn.  While there can be strong variations, the three segments are roughly the same size.  The upper and lower parts are a red background with indigo designs floating within.  Prior to 1875, the reds are typically  raveled bayeta coming from wool cloth dyed with cochineal or lac or a combination of both dyes.

These raveled yarns can be worsted (hard and smooth) or woolen (fuzzy and soft).  The earlier yarns are worsted, the later ones woolen. The design elements floating in the red zone are almost always white wool hand spun yarn dyed with indigo. On occasion, one will see indigo green used in these designs.  After 1875, as a general rule, the reds are raveled yarns from synthetic dyed yarns. By the later 188os indigo dye is no longer being used, and is replaced with synthetic blue or other colors. By the 1880s the market became flooded with all sorts of synthetic colors, most pronounced being the Germantown yarns.  These yarns are machine plied (3 or 4 plies), synthetically dyed,  and make very tight and fine blankets. Their qualities match the fine, worsted yarns coming out of bayeta in the classic weaving era (1820 – 1865).  Below are three photographs of early Navajo dress panels showing all the aspects that make up the classic dress.

An early, circa 1850, Navajo single dress panel dyed with cochineal and lac. The crosses are deep indigo blue as are the series of half diamonds bordering the upper and lower portions.

Very finely woven single Navajo dress panel, circa 1865 with cochineal dyed bayeta and indigo dyed designs. The middle body is the classic natural, brown, hand spun fine yarns.


A rare Navajo dress pair circa 1860 or earlier with fine, s spun worsted bayeta dyed with both cochineal and lac. Indigo blue is used in the hand spun yarns showing the stepped, undulating designs. The body is brown, hand spun un-dyed yarns.

What Makes this Dress Panel Unusual?

In contrast to the above, classic dress panels, one can see that this panel is unique.  The weaver of this Navajo dress enjoyed breaking up the upper and lower segments even further by varying the types of raveled bayeta used. The darker red is raveled bayeta dyed with cochineal at 70% and lac at 30%.  The bayeta strands are very fine, s spun and worsted.  This is typical of bayeta coming out of the earliest dress panels, that being before 1865.  The orange color adjacent to the red, appears to be the same type of bayeta as the red, except for being synthetically dyed.  These orange bayeta strands are very fine, worsted, s spun yarns.   Synthetic dyes fade much more easily than natural dyes like cochineal.  In this case, when looking deeper into the crevasses of the orange yarns, one can see that they were more red-orange than orange in their original day.  Still, they were different enough from the cochineal dyed yarns to make a strong design statement when this blanket was first woven.

One third of the dress panel showing the variations of the red with orange yarns.

The other third with a more restrained use of the orange yarns.

A weaving like this is only as old as its most contemporary parts.  While this blanket has the feel and look of an earlier, classic panel, we have to put it into the late classic dating from 1875 to 1885.  This is because of the presence of synthetic dyes.   What is so curious to me is that the two yarns look identical as if they were both dyed at the same time, one in cochineal and lac and the other in synthetic red.   The worsted quality of the synthetic yarns suggest, to me, that this is likely an early made cloth.  Perhaps both cloths were dyed at the same time but different vats of dye – one natural, one synthetic?  What is more likely is that the early cloth with cochineal was saved and not used later on.  Instead, it was brought out and used in the 1870s along side newer synthetic dyed cloth.

A closer view of the varied yarns as well as the crenulations along the side. The deep blue here is all indigo dyed, hand spun yarns. The red and orange yarns are all raveled bayeta.

Another unusual aspect of this weaving is the use of crenulations along the sides of the red segments.  This design element took extra work and care as it was not easy going in and out like she did.  This is the sort of thing that someone would notice and set this panel apart from the others.

A view of the corner showing how the weaver resolved the meeting of the crenulated long side with the end stepped designs.

This details shows the two types of bayeta adjacent to each other. Notice how they look to be the same yarn, in twist (s spun), in size and in being worsted and not woolen.

These unusual qualities make this a “stand out” panel, different from the rest and a unique creation.  The weaver was adventurous and left us her delightful expression that moves us still, to this day!

This dress panel has some old restoration in it. Most all of the old work is along the edging.  The body of the weaving is very much in tact with very little restoration.   The corner tassels appear to be restored.  This panel is available at my gallery for viewing and purchase. It is priced at $5,800.

Shown here is the opposite side to the primary side shown at the top of this blog.

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