Shirley Comb Navajo Rug Weaver
I can’t imagine weaving not being one of the first skills of ancient peoples. It was used to make shoes, clothing, blankets and baskets. In this part of the world technologies didn’t change much. The groups in the Americas kept perfecting weaving. Today it has moved from a utilitarian purpose to one of art. When Shirley Comb was a little girl her mother would begin to teach her to weave.
Perry Null Trading Do you remember when you first started weaving?
Shirley Comb My father passed away when I was young. So my mother started teaching me to weave when I was six years old. She would use the money to buy groceries.
Perry Null Trading What kind of rugs would you weave?
Shirley Comb I made simple weavings with straight lines. My mom would set everything up for me and I would just have to weave.
Perry Null Trading Did your mother buy commercial wool?
Shirley Comb No. My maternal grandfather was a medicine man. He would get paid with sheep when he performed a ceremony. That meant my grandparents always had a lot of sheep.
Perry Null Trading So your mom did it the hard way?
Shirley Comb Yes, we did everything. The sheep would be sheared in the spring. My mom would have my sister and I card the wool and clean it. Then she would spin the wool and set up the loom.
Perry Null Trading Was your sister older or younger than you?
Shirley Comb She is my younger sister, Daisy Nakai. She is very well known for her rugs, and was the reason I began weaving again as an adult.
Perry Null Trading What kind of rugs does she weave?
Shirley Comb Daisy weaves a traditional style Yei’ rug. Our mother wove a Yei’ rug and that is where we learned this style. My rugs look different than Daisy’s, but both of us have our mother’s style in our weavings.
Perry Null Trading Why Yei’ weavings?
Shirley Comb My paternal grandfather was a singer in the 9 day Night Ways ceremony and I learned a lot from him. What the different dancers meant. Like the rug I brought today, the women are singing for prosperity and the males for healing.
Perry Null Trading What was your mother’s name, and who taught her?
Shirley Comb Her name was Lilly John Claleson. She grew up in Red Valley Cove and was taught by one of her aunts.
Perry Null Trading When was this?
Shirley Comb In the 1940s – 50s.
Perry Null Trading Shiprock is known for Yei rugs, is Red Valley Cove close?
Shirley Comb Yes, it is close to Sansontee which is not that far from Shiprock.
Perry Null Trading Back to the sheep. Did you also dye their wool?
Shirley Comb Yes, I learned from my mother what plants to use for certain colors, and we would also use the natural colors of the sheep.
Perry Null Trading Do you still do that today?
Shirley Comb No, I buy the wool already dyed. I do use natural colors still in my weavings. I have been talking with Jed Foutz of Shiprock Trading about doing an old style weaving, one where I do all of the steps beginning with shearing the sheep.
Perry Null Trading You talked earlier about your sister getting you to weave again, tell me about that.
Shirley Comb My mother stressed education. So I finished school and started working. I didn’t weave for a long time and then I went on a selling trip with my sister. She always took her rugs to Sedona to sell. On the trip she was encouraging me to start weaving again and I began seeing Yei’s dancing in the red rocks around Sedona.
Perry Null Trading Do you always have these visions?
Shirley Comb I travel around the reservation a lot. I always see the Yei’s dancing in the rock formations. Then I visualize my rug to look like the vision. I think of it as a spiritual gift.
Perry Null Trading Your rugs are always very interesting and beautiful, thank you.