Research at the California Academy of Sciences

Made in England:
A Collection of Navajo-Style Rugs

Shuffrey Collection of Navajo-style rugs
The Shuffrey Collection of Navajo-style
rugs is a kaleidoscope with its many
designs and shades of yarn.

In 1980, Margaret and Tony Shuffrey left their home, about an hour north of London near Hemel Hempstead, to visit friends and fellow fly-fishing enthusiasts in Idaho. It was their first extended visit to the American West, but it would also be the start of another kind of adventure, one that would last 20 years and link them to an entirely different culture.

Quite by happenstance, both Margaret and Tony had become proficient weavers on English floor looms, so while planning their 1980 fishing trip to Idaho, Margaret asked their friends about possibly seeing Native Americans weaving. She had heard about Navajo weavers, but had no sense of where they lived in relation to Idaho. Their friends sent them maps, magazine articles, and books about Navajo weaving, which sparked their interest even more. So after visiting their friends for several weeks, they headed south to Arizona and New Mexico.

Location of the Navajo Nation in relation to Idaho
The Navajo Nation lies 600 miles south of Idaho.

For the next two weeks, they stopped at numerous trading posts, museums, and craft shops. Place names like Ganado, Two Grey Hills, and Teec Nos Pos, which they had seen in books, now became real for them, and at each stop they were captivated by the weavings. Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado was especially inspiring. Established in the 1870s and operated for many years by J. L. Hubbell and his descendants, it is the oldest continuously operated post on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The National Park Service has managed it since 1967 and it still functions as an old time trading post serving the local community and tourists, alike. The interpretive displays include Navajo weaving demonstrations by some of the areaís master weavers.

 

Navajo weaver Evelyn Curley nears completion of a Ganado Red rug at Hubbell Trading Post

Navajo weaver Evelyn Curley nears completion
of a Ganado Red rug at Hubbell Trading Post.

 

On the day the Shuffreys stopped at Hubbells, noted weaver Evelyn Curley was close to finishing a rug with the red background for which Ganado rugs are known. Just as Navajos learn by watching, the Shuffreys observed the weavers closely. Tony took many photos, both here and every other place they visited. They also purchased nearly every book they could find about Navajo weaving.

Sometime during their trip, Margaret and Tony decided it would be interesting and fun to weave a Navajo style rug of their own. When they returned to England, they followed the step-by-step instructions for making a Navajo loom in Navajo and Hopi Weaving Techniques by Mary Pendleton and in Working with the Wool by NoŽl Bennett and Tiana Bighorse. Tony devised a makeshift but very sturdy loom frame, using metal scaffolding that was stored in their garage. In fact, he designed it so that he and Margaret could work on separate rugs at the same time, face to face.

The unique face-to-face Navajo-style loom that Tony designed
Tony and Margaret Shuffrey work on separate rugs on the
unique face-to-face Navajo-style loom that Tony designed.
CAS 2007-0001-0025 (left); CAS 2007-0001-0029 (right)
Margaretís (left) and Tonyís (right) first Navajo-style rugs.
Left to right: CAS 2007-0001-0025, CAS 2007-0001-0029.

 

Initially, they could not find locally a wool yarn that was spun finely enough and strong enough for the warps (the vertical strands that form a rugís internal structure), so they used an Egyptian cotton yarn. In later pieces they used English wool belting yarn of the type used to weave conveyor belts. English 2-ply wool yarn was used for the wefts (the horizontal strands that are visible on the surface of a Navajo rug). Although their first rugs are rather heavy, they are far more complex and certainly much better woven than most beginnersí pieces. It didnít hurt that both Margaret and Tony were perfectionists.

 

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