Spider Woman, by Gladys A. Reichard, , at sacred-texts.com
The place I accidentally chose in my weariness has become my permanent sleeping porch. From it I may look into the Great Dipper all night. Queer how high they hang it out here. Perhaps because they have so little water they do not want anyone to reach it easily; he might spill it. These first nights I spend very little time star-gazing.
The next thing I am aware of is the sun's white light, a warning that he will soon peep over the horizon. This is the time a good Navajo gets up. But I am not a good Navajo, and I wink sleepily at him; he tolerates my blink as I roll over in my comfortable blankets for another hour of sleep. The branches of the freak piñon-juniper keep his rays from my eyes until the indecently late hour of six-thirty.
I am awakened a second time by a goat who wants to know what this new kind of grass is. Ghats always want to know things. Dazedly I twirl my blanket strap at her and look about me. Once more long shadows, but these are clear, taut, and energetic, not softly focused and relaxing like the patterns drawn by the setting sun. The sheep have begun their lively munching, the goats their eternal uncomprehending researches. Maria Antonia is at her wood-chopping again after lighting her fire of cedar. Women trail vigorously back and forth from the old mother's shade to their own houses,
their full ruffled skirts billowing behind them. The children are teasing the calf, the dogs wait on the outskirts of all this activity for the least sign of a morsel.
I am scarcely through with my morning routine, simple and brief though it is, before Marie is with me. From my lookout on the trunk I have noticed that our warp is not straight. It is noticeably shorter at the left side than at the right. I call it to Marie's attention and she calmly says, yes, she noticed it yesterday before she left. She had measured with a string the distance on the two sides of the temporary frame when she strung it, but she must have made a mistake, or more probably a crosspole slipped before it was quite tight. She sits before the loom and begins at about the middle to pull each warp at top and bottom, working toward the left, until the whole looks more even. Her patience is matched only by my impatience at this delay. At last it is straighter, although even to my crooked eye, not absolutely so.
I have chosen to make first a blanket of stripes using the typical Navajo colors, black, red, white, and gray. Marie begins with black. She makes the start so deftly that I do not learn until we start our next blanket that the first rows are different from the succeeding ones. She pulls the heald with her left hand, flicks the warp with the spread fingertips of her right, inserts a broad smooth stick called the batten, and turns it. She throws her yarn through, pounds it down, and withdraws the batten. Now she presses the heald rod against the loops of the heald and she has a different shed, the alternate warps are forward. A casual flip of the fingers across the warp, and the weft throwing and pounding are repeated.
I at first think this flipping an unnecessary, possibly an aesthetic gesture like the elaborate motions of a bootblack's
flannel. But when I take up the weaving position myself I find it serves a very useful purpose. The texture of the warp changes somewhat from the time it is first strung up to the time the blanket is finished. It is a hard-spun strong yarn, but still capable of much stretching. For this reason the warp must be tightened much more frequently at the beginning of the weaving than after it approaches the center. Furthermore there are wool fibers, so small as not to be easily discernible, which catch one another and prevent the sheds from being completely thrown. The swift light flip of the fingers separates such of these fibers on the forward warps as adhere to those behind. Constant friction of fingers, batten, comb, and yarn wears off these fibers so that as the weaving proceeds to the middle of the loom length, they are gone leaving a smooth tight warp.
Marie weaves about half of the narrow beginning black stripe, then, handing me the comb, tells me to try it myself. It is the moment I have longed for. All those things which are done so easily, so casually by the Navajo women begin to take on unsuspected difficulties when I try them. I have to think of the smallest details as if they were significant. I have for some years prided myself on being able to sit like a Navajo woman with both legs folded back at the right side and with no support for the back. But I now realize that sitting that way for a few minutes and changing posture is a different matter from remaining in the position for several hours with no satisfactory shift. And sitting is not the whole consideration. I am at the same time pounding down the yarn to the floor level and the resultant kink in the shoulder is quickly noticeable, or would be if I were not too interested in the details of my new craft.
I do not even know which way to hold the comb or batten. Marie, laughing at my awkwardness, shows me that the wide part of the batten is the top, the slightly concave side the front. I learn to hold it at the center with thumb at the front, two fingers behind it. This position allows sufficient control in inserting it. I know the principle of the sheds, but knowing and doing are different matters. I quickly learn how to alternate the heald and heald rod, but even now, after I have become proficient at weaving, the arrangement seems somewhat miraculous to me, and in those early days I had to think out each shift.
After I have my shed thrown and my batten in, Marie shows me how to hold the comb. Its tapering handle rests on the bone of the lower thumb joint; the comb is held loosely between the first two and the last two fingers. Since we are weaving stripes which extend across the entire width of the blanket, it is possible to throw the yarn or weft all the way across if it is wound on a reed about twelve to fifteen inches long. This is a crude shuttle. We have one for each color to be laid in stripes. In all other cases we carry the yarn through with the fingers.
After I have got as far as inserting my first weft yarn, I press it down with the batten, as I have seen Navajo women do, or as I thought I had seen them do. "Why do you do that?" says Marie. "I thought that's the way you do," say I meekly. "Never," says Marie emphatically. "Only poor weavers do that. You should pound it down tight with the comb."
I manage to do so, but in my concentration to handle the comb properly I have dropped the batten. It has turned over and I have to figure out its top and front once more. The
next time I carefully pull out the batten and hold it in place only to find I have laid down my comb. I fumble for it and get it once more into position. Within a few days during which I not only weave but watch the others for hours on end, I learn by an almost imperceptible motion to shift the comb from the position necessary for pounding to the position of rest.
Theoretically the healds regulate the warp; actually one must be constantly on guard, especially at the beginning of the rug where the warp is rough and stretchy, against picking up a warp or a series of them from the wrong set. A little practice shows me such mistakes as I weave along, and I gradually get a feeling of intimacy for the strands.
I am now beginning to coördinate healds, batten, comb, shedding, inserting the weft and pounding it down. True I occasionally hit my knees with the comb, but my injuries have no interest for me except later in retrospect. In addition to all these matters I am bothered seriously by the heavy double binding strands. They are not a part of the loom, but are tied to the upper and lower sticks after the loom is complete. Nevertheless they are of primary importance. I learn from Marie that the test of a blanket is its edge. If it is bound in evenly it will not pull when the weaving is done, it will exhibit a pleasing purl at the exact center of the rug's thickness, and it will run exactly parallel to the opposite edge its entire length. In other words, the width of the blanket will be uniform throughout.
I must not forget to include these edge strands; I must twist them properly and give an additional twist at proper intervals.
As I throw the lumpy shuttle reeds from right to left and
from left to right, I find that my stripe sags in the middle, in fact sags badly. I have noticed that expert weavers often place additional weft strands at what seem arbitrary places and for short distances. They know that an unevenness of only a thread's width will be a fault. I have allowed mine to become a veritable scallop before Marie suggests my filling it in. Had I been as discerning as she, one row would have done the trick. As it is, I must work with it for several rows and even then the stripe is far from straight. I have also a convex scallop at a different place from the sagging one. I can find no reason for this, but in her matter-of-fact way Marie tightens the warp; and after several rows of filling in, the difficulty is overcome. Once in a while Marie rescues the blanket from my blundering fingers. She tightens the warp, straightens the stripes, corrects the edges.
As I struggle along, learning to control unaccustomed muscles, Marie sits by my side watching carefully lest I make a mistake. We don't talk much, except about the points of the weaving. A child doesn't talk when he is learning to write. Besides, Marie does not "tell" when teaching. She "shows." The Navajo word for "teach" means "show" and is absolutely literal. As the minutes fly, Marie winds the colors on my reeds.
I have come toward the top of my second stripe, a red one, when Maria Antonia comes in. She shows Marie that the left edge is drawing in. Marie takes the comb from me, turns it, and with its sharp point loosens the weft on the left side by pulling it up and spreading the warp with strong horizontal movements which look dangerous to me. I have yet to learn that any blanket worth a continental will survive a greater pressure than this, that all calculations are made on the basis
of this tremendous strain. Another row or so shows that even this treatment is not sufficiently drastic, and the women see the rug still drawing in. I myself see nothing to fuss about. I am to get the shock all at once much later.
Maria Antonia cuts out the sixth warp from the left, eliminates it entirely. I weave on for several rows as she watches. Marie has shown me how to lay the weft so that it will not pull in; she has also shown me how to manipulate my comb with a subtle twist so that the yarn will lie more loosely. But it is only much later, after I have practised alone considerably, that I rediscover this subtlety. I hit upon it accidentally and analyze it; from that time on it is mine. My attempts at laying the yarn loosely are unsuccessful, and now Maria Antonia, as a last resort, ties a piece of warp yarn firmly into the finished web and hitches it to the left upright of the loomframe. I have seen many a Navajo at her weaving, but never have I seen a makeshift like this. The feature most humiliating to me is that the edge does not look crooked to me, at least not very crooked.
The argument of the two women and their taking over the weaving for a few minutes have been an immense relief for me. I have become almost too stiff to move. They laugh at me and say, as I draw my legs slowly but lengthily forth from the folds of my skirt, "You are like a stick."
My hand feels better for the respite also, as does my shoulder. The comb, being heavy because of the notion this family has that the batten must not be used for pounding home the weft, comes down with the cunning torture of a minor inquisition on the bone of the second thumb joint. This particular point of the weaver's anatomy receives all the impact of the weft's reaction. Small wonder it is that many
[paragraph continues] Navajo use light combs and rely on the batten for beating the weft tight, at least where it is laid straight. I am still feeling too inferior to mention this slight annoyance, but secretly I am pleased to stop for a moment.
I have finished four stripes, a little less than a hand, at the end of this my first day, a black, a red, a white, and a gray one. With standards not very highly developed I am quite pleased with the result of my handiwork as I, eating supper, view it from my trunk. The red stripe lies straighter than the black, the white deviates less than the red. With the gray I have had more trouble than with any, but its upper edge, although not completely satisfactory, is nevertheless acceptable.
I have sampled yarn of every color. The white is the most even, the red next because it is the white which has been dyed. Dyeing apparently packs the fibers, making them firm and even. I suspect that black is always uneven—a suspicion which learning to card later corroborates. The wool of the black sheep has a short staple; it is crimpy, and no amount of hand treatment will make it smooth and regular like the white. The gray I am using is a combination of white and black, blended in carding, and it has a lumpy texture which must continually be counteracted by filling in.
This second evening as I take account of my achievement I can only wonder where the day has gone. My legs are stiff, I have a knot in the muscle of my right shoulder, my hands are cramped, a hangnail on the index finger has been irritated by the warp, my head is weary from concentration. But as I lean against my, blanket roll in the magic of the short twilight my fingers itch to do "just one more row."