Mapping Weaving

Ann Lane Hedlund finishes the work her teacher started with 'Blanket Weaving in the Southwest.'

When Ann Lane Hedlund was an undergrad at the University of Colorado, Boulder, back in 1973, she signed up to study with Joe Ben Wheat, a curator of anthropology at the university's museum.

The year before, Wheat--who got his doctorate at the University of Arizona in the 1950s--had begun an intensive research project to document and classify Southwest textiles woven in previous centuries by the Pueblo, Navajo and Spanish Americans. He had crisscrossed the country to look at some 3,500 textiles in as many as 50 collections.

"I'm not sure yet what will be important," the distinguished professor/curator told his young student. "But we have to look at and record everything."

That advice served both in good stead. Wheat indeed recorded everything. But what Hedlund couldn't have known then was that the task of publishing Wheat's monumental research would fall to her, some 30 years after they first met. The UA Press has just posthumously published Wheat's massive book Blanket Weaving in the Southwest. After her teacher's death in 1997, Hedlund became the book's editor, and it was she who shaped his voluminous writings, notes and slides into coherent narrative.

At 444 pages, the giant volume is a "doorstop" of a book, Hedlund humorously told a lecture audience at the Arizona State Museum last week. "It's not a coffee table book," she added, "but if you put legs on it ..."

Furniture-like it might be, but it's also a gorgeous art book, with no fewer than 191 color photographs of weavings of startling beauty. In page after page, they appear in their familiar bold geometries, stripes and zigzags, diamonds and diagonals, woven--and photographed--in brilliant reds, whites, blacks, yellows and blues. Lovely as it is, the volume is also a serious piece of scholarship. Scholars have already declared that it is certain to become the leading reference work in its field. Yet in a sense, it's still a work in progress.

"Joe Ben was still puzzling over it," Hedlund said. "It's not a book of final answers. It's a research book. The book is being called a classic, but it's a wonderful set of questions."

The book is highly technical, and it introduced a new classification system and chronology for Southwest textiles, based on Wheat's minute analysis of yarns, dyes, weaves and so on. Beginning his work before computers, even before the ready availability of photocopying machines, Wheat took infinite notes and made laborious diagrams on graph paper, Hedlund said. (Some of his elegant note pages are reproduced in the book, which also includes Kathleen Koopman's fine line drawings.)

Wheat completed four chapters by 1987, and left notes for a final chapter on design. His many other commitments, as a teacher, curator and working archaeologist, compounded by ill health in the last decade of his life, Hedlund said, prevented him from publishing the work himself. With the blessing of Wheat's widow, Barbara, Hedlund hauled his materials back to Tucson, where she is director of the Gloria F. Ross Center for Tapestry Studies at the Arizona State Museum. Helped by grad students and museum assistants, Hedlund put three years of labor into the book. Credited as editor, she reorganized it into seven chapters, and wrote a preface, introduction and final chapter herself.

"I was graced with lots of help from lots of people," Hedlund said, not least of whom was Wheat himself. "From the beginning, he was generous with his information. He was a natural-born teacher."

While the technical information Wheat unearthed will primarily be of interest to scholars and serious collectors, Wheat also sketched a historical chronology of more general interest. Relying as much on archival records as on the weavings themselves, his research up-ended some conventional historical ideas.

For instance, it had long been believed that the Pueblo Indians, dwelling in what is now New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, taught the Navajos how to weave. The Pueblo Indians had been weaving for a thousand years before the Spanish came, and Wheat quotes the conquistador Coronado saying that it was the Pueblo man who "has to spin and weave." The thinking was that after the Pueblo revolts against the Spanish in the 1680s, refugee Pueblos fleeing the triumphant Spanish sought refuge among the Navajos. Once ensconced, they taught weaving to their hosts.

"Joe always thought the Navajo began earlier," Hedlund said, and he was able to document that they began weaving long before the Pueblo revolts, at least as early as 1650, and probably before. The Navajo "quickly adapted to wool, and developed a repertoire that went well beyond the Pueblo basics."

Wheat also traces the fascinating cross-cultural pollination of technology and materials. The early Pueblo wove their textiles from cotton and other native plants; once the Spanish introduced sheep around 1598, the Indians readily incorporated woolen yarns. New World cochineal dyes were shipped to Europe and used to dye fabric. When those same fabrics were exported back to America, the Navajo unraveled the European cloth and used their yarns in their own weavings, Hedlund said, making for transcontinental recycling.

Historical events also routinely altered traditional techniques. After the Navajo were forced to take the Long March into exile in New Mexico in the 1860s, they were issued manufactured yarns by the U.S. government, and the new materials soon made their way into Indian weavings. And once the railroad came in the 1880s, the demands of a new tourist market triggered still more shifts in designs, with well-known traders such as Hubbell "pushing weavers to do the old designs."

Today, weaving thrives still, though the textiles are now fine art for the wall, rather than functional blankets and garments. Hedlund has a book of her own coming out in a year's time, Navajo Weaving in the Late 20th Century. She's done extensive research of her own, she says, but she often thinks of her old teacher. When a puzzling fact pops up, or some new study comes out, she wonders, "What would Joe Ben think?"