When you think of the American Southwest, you probably call up images of silver and turquoise rings, expansive deserts, and beautiful homespun textiles. Some of the most revered textiles to come out of the region are Navajo rugs. Today, antique and vintage Navajo rugs sell for tens of thousands of dollars because of their cultural and spiritual beauty.
Navajo Rugs and Their Cultural Tradition
In Navajo tradition, weaving is a deeply spiritual practice. Legend has it that the deity Spider Woman taught them their particular weaving style. Naturally, weaving organic fibers is a global practice that's developed in most communities across time and space, making the Navajo one of many. However, Navajo rugs are much like Persian rugs in that the authentic pieces have their own unique style and motifs, making them highly valuable.
Identify Navajo Rugs Based on These Characteristics
Strictly speaking, identifying Navajo rugs is something you should leave up to the pros. There are so many unique deviations and artist signatures that knowing exactly what piece you have can be really hard for the average person. But if you think you or your family acquired one of these rugs at some point, there are a few characteristics you can look for.
Continuous Warp and Lack of Fringe
Genuine Navajo rugs are made using a continuous warp weave, which means the rugs are made on an upright loom, moving the threads up and down the loom until they reach the very end. Thus, there aren't any 'ends' to tie off to create fringe. Nor should you find any ends (extra thread) woven back into the weave to give the illusion of a continuous warp.
Wool Warp on the Sides
Navajo rugs are typically finished on the vertical edges with a wool warp. You don't have to know textiles well to know when you're feeling wool. Imitations usually favor cotton or linen because it's cheaper to use and has the same effect.
However, if everything else matches and you have a cotton warp, then it might be a Gallup throw, as it's the only Navajo rug that consistently uses cotton threads.
Earthy, Muted Colors
In traditional Navajo rugs, you don't ever see extremely bright, or neon colors. Since the textiles have historically been natural fibers that've been dyed using organic materials, they never reach that bright tone. That's not to say the colors they used aren't saturated and rich; rather, they tend to be in earth tones instead of colors, like vibrant pink and purple.
If you have a rug that seems to have an imperfection, that's a good sign. Distinctive diagonal lines that show up in the weave are called lazy lines and are really common in genuine Navajo rugs. These lines are created when the weaver makes an adjustment while weaving.
Common Navajo Rug Styles
In addition to sharing these common characteristics, there are region-specific rug styles that developed over the past few centuries. Each one has its own standard appearance, and knowing what they look like can help you pick out a real one from a fake. Here are just a few of the many styles you might encounter.
Burntwater rugs weren't made until the 1960s when Don Jacobs came up with the design. These rugs are colorful, having been made out of vegetable-dyed textiles, and they feature both diamonds and intricate, repeating patterns.
Created by Mary Cabot Wheelwright and Cozy McSparron, the Chinle style features chevrons, stars, squash blossoms, and diamonds in muted tones of colors like brown, red, green, gold, and ivory.
Created by Lorenzo Hubbell in the late-19th century, Ganado rugs are identifiable by the stepped diamond patterns made in various sizes and arrangements. Typically, these rugs have a red, white, gray, and black color palette.
Toadlena/Two Grey Hills Rugs
One of the older, documented styles is the Toadlena and Two Grey Hills. George Bloomfield and Ed Davis invented this style in 1914, which is distinctive not only for its diamond and geometric pattern, but mostly for its grayscale color palette.
How Much Are Antique and Vintage Navajo Rugs Worth?
Authentic Navajo rugs are some of the more expensive indigenous textiles on the market. Typically, the older the piece, the more valuable it's going to be as 19th century rugs don't often survive in a good enough condition to sell. Depending on their quality, provenance, and style, they can sell for upwards of $20,000, though the average sits more around $5,000-$10,000. For example, a Ganado rug from the 1930s is listed on 1st Dibs for $6,950.
Also, be on the lookout for intricately woven pieces. The simpler designs don't sell for as much as the really complex ones. This could be due, in large part, to how difficult weaving a continuous strand in those tiny patterns could be. For example, one highly detailed stepped geometric Navajo rug from the 1930s is listed on 1st Dibs for $34,000.
Similarly, there are so many fakes and dupes out there that rugs which can be 100% authenticated to a specific artist or style are worth the most money. Of course, if you're looking to buy a Navajo rug for less than how much it costs for a semester of college, we suggest finding newer vintages in less prestigious patterns. These will sell for around $500-$1,000 on average.
Yet, you can occasionally find the really special and rare rugs with unusual motifs selling for a shocking amount. One of these examples is a Navajo sandpainting rug that Christie's Auctions sold in 2005 for $57,600.
Admire the Beauty of a Textile Tradition
American indigenous communities have faced persecution, attempted eradication, and extreme assimilation efforts. Yet, throughout all of those hardships, traditional practices like hand weaving have survived. And today, they're given the credit they deserve. These vintage and antique Navajo rugs let us uplift these weavers' talents and embrace a beautiful, spiritual tradition.