Wide Ruins Navajo Rug

Wide Ruins Navajo Rug

It was late summer, 1942, and Gladys, an elder Navajo weaver, walked across the sun drenched desert gathering native plants for vegetal dyes. It had rained the day before and the land was fresh, with the heady aroma of sage filling the air. Gladys was collecting the yellow flowers of rabbitbrush to dye wool for a Wide Ruins rug. She knelt beside a particularly robust plant, faced the east, made an offering of sacred chips and said prayers.

“You grow in the first World – Black
You grow in the Second World – Blue
You grow in the Third World – Yellow
You grow in the Fourth World – White
You come to the Sun.”

Gladys then walked to another plant and began breaking off golden flower heads and small twigs, placing them gently in her basket. She never touched the plant she'd prayed to, but moved all about it, gathering blossoms purposefully from bush to bush. When she returned home she went to the spring to collect water for dyeing her wool. Kneeling amidst the delicate plants that grew at the water's edge, Gladys made another offering and prayed to the water: “Make good color for me, make the colors of the rainbow.” Later, while Gladys stirred the simmering wool and rabbitbrush in a large pot, under the cool of her summer “shade,” she said prayers to her sheep: “Thank you for your fleece, for your life...Bless my knowledge that I make no mistake...Bless my knowledge of the colors of Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.”

Navajo Rug by Mrytle Francis Navajo Rug by Mrytle Francis

Upon completion of her rug Gladys took it to the Wide Ruins Trading Post, so named for Kinteel, the large Anasazi ruin upon which it was built. She sold her beautiful banded rug for a fair price and immediately turned her cash back into the four sacred colors: Black for a bead of black jet; Blue for a strand of turquoise; Yellow for a pendant of abalone and White for a necklace of white shell.

For Gladys, the world was holistic. Everything was one, interconnected. She knew that the yellow flowers and their root held the very universe in their being: Earth, Air, Water, Sun. Gladys wove the cosmos into her rugs.

* * * *

The history of the Wide Ruins style is fairly short as far as rug and trading post stories go. After the great Navajo rug revival at the end of the 19th century, spearheaded by Lorenzo Hubbell at Ganado and J. B. Moore of Crystal, many felt that the quality of Navajo weaving was beginning another decline. Mary Cabot Wheelwright, wealthy Bostonian and patron of the arts, was one of the most vocal in this regard. In 1920, after attending a Yei Bi Chei ceremony at Canyon de Chelly, she met Cozy McSparron, owner of the Chinle Trading Post. Wheelwright voiced her concerns about commercial dye colors, poor weaving quality and unimaginative designs. She found that McSparron agreed. The two then began a “revitalization” campaign, attempting to bring back the banded serape patterns of the Classic period, using mostly warm, pleasing, vegetal dyed colors. Their efforts were rewarded and appreciated by buyers. In 1932 the Eastern Association on Indian Affairs took up the same crusade, encouraging weavers to return to Classic style patterns in natural colors. (Amsden:1934)

By 1938 this weaving revitalization was well established in the Chinle area. It was at this point that Sallie Wagner and Bill Lippincott, anthropology graduates and summer rangers at Canyon de Chelly, became inspired by Reservation life, the trader's world and the beautiful rugs they saw at Chinle; so inspired that they decided to purchase a trading post for themselves. They bought the Wide Ruins post in the southeast quadrant of the Reservation, and with the help of Jean and Bill Cousins, began a rug revival program themselves. “We had seen the very beautiful rugs that the weavers at Canyon de Chelly produced, and we hoped to guide the Wide Ruins weavers into the production of beautiful rugs too.” (Wagner) In this pursuit the Lippincotts were dedicated, innovative and ultimately successful. The Wide Ruins style we know today is the result of their endeavors and the creativity of Navajo weavers willing to experiment with new patterns, plants and dyeing techniques.

The Lippincotts first step was to declare that they would no longer purchase any rugs with borders, arrows or swastikas. They then showed the area weavers which patterns and colors they preferred. “We hung some of the Chinle rugs from Canyon de Chelly on the store walls...and encouraged them to do similar patterns.” (Wagner) The Lippincotts were so committed to their vision that they purchased nearly all the early inferior rugs, in an attempt to bolster the weavers' confidence and motivate them to keep trying. Bill and Sallie paid a teacher from Fort Wingate to hold weaving classes in the schoolhouse, conducted craft fairs in their home and made the 1940 plant dye book by Nonabah Bryan available to all. (Rodee:1981) (James:1999) Eventually the beautiful banded rug style of Wide Ruins spread to other parts of the Reservation, influencing the Pine Springs region and changing J. B. Moore's bordered patterns at Crystal.

There is no better description of a Wide Ruins rug than the one offered by H. L. James in his article, Navajo Rugs: The Regional Style.

“The native plant dye experiments fostered by the Lippincotts in 1938, and which were subsequently coupled by master weavers, have made the Wide Ruins rug the ultimate in sophisticated color and design. The Wide Ruins is extremely fine-carded, all hand-spun and beautifully dyed and woven. The natural colors of gray and white are used sparingly, but the blending of subtle shades
of seemingly endless plant combinations defies description. Soft pastels of exquisite pinks, yellows, beige, deep corals, rich grays, olive greens, multiple tones of tan and brown and hues of lilac all combine to place the Wide Ruins a notch above all others in esthetic value. To complement the colors the weaving design is Classic Period stripes and bands situated across a borderless motif. Overall
simplicity is intended, however, the ornamentation is quite complex; finely constructed outlines, hatch work, discontinuous sequences of alternating colors and beading techniques provide extraordinary embroidery arrangements. The attention to detail of the design forms approach true artful expression. As evidenced by their product the Wide Ruins weaver practices her craft with the utmost diligence—always striving for quality construction and continually searching for that yet undiscovered tinge that may lie in the dyebath of a wild plum or juniper seed.”

When your eye is caught by the beauty of a Wide Ruins rug hanging on a trading post wall, you share in the fruition of the Lippincott's dream, the talent of the weaver and the enduring force of Navajo spiritual belief.

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