Skip to Content


By Ron Franscell
Denver Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 09, 2002 - TOADLENA, N.M. - Back when Indian weaving first splashed earth tones on New York's gaudy art scene, a rug trader visited Virginia Deal's loom in a remote corner of the Navajo Nation and made her an offer.

"How much for this rug?" he asked her.

Virginia pondered. She had learned her craft from Daisy Taugelchee, the Picasso of Navajo weavers. Virginia's rugs were among the finest in the Two Grey Hills region, where the reservation's best textiles had been woven for centuries. Her threads were as fine as silk, her designs startlingly intricate.

But it wasn't difficult to put a price on her rug."A truck," she told the trader.

A week later, a new pickup arrived at her hogan. Her rug went East.

Mythology weaves through Navajo culture like the fine spirit thread that leads a weaver from one blanket to the next.
Once upon a time, when a baby girl was born, her mother would wrap her tiny hands in spider webs, a ceremony to invite the blessing of the Spider Woman, who first taught the Navajo to weave.

But neither culture nor mythology has been able to sustain the traditional art of Navajo weaving in a modern world, where distractions and dilutions have taken their toll on most aspects of native life.

For once, the outside world might help rescue Navajo weaving traditions. And it's a white man, a trader, who is opening doors to young Navajo women, swaddling their hands with new tools, new markets, money—and a little hope—by almost single-handedly underwriting the resurrection of a dying art.

Mark Winter is not as complex as he seems. A military brat and a shrewd businessman, he's also a wisecracking ex-hippie who still believes one man can change the world - or at least that part of the world he can touch with his hands.

At 52, he's already made his fortune buying and selling rare 19th-century Indian textiles, but now he's spending it: Five years ago, he invested in the historic Toadlena Trading Post, which is little more than a frontier convenience store in the heart of the Navajo Nation's Two Grey Hills region between Gallup and Shiprock, in the shadow of the Chuska Mountains.

And in a backroom there, he doles out loans, praise, groceries, mortgage payments, marketing advice, encouragement and, most important, cash to a growing cadre of weavers.

Winter doesn't tell the weavers what to weave, he simply pays more for bigger and better. So he gets it.

What's better? Cleaner designs, softer wool, truer natural colors and a finer "weft," the number of horizontal threads per inch. A typical Navajo rug has about 30 wefts to the inch. A Two Grey Hills from Toadlena averages 45. The legendary Daisy Taugelchee wove more than 115 wefts per inch, the most finely woven Navajo tapestries anywhere.

The roots of Navajo weaving are deep. They go back 1,000 years to the Anasazi, who wove on upright looms. Their descendants, today's Pueblo Indians, grew their own cotton and further refined the art. Then came Spanish settlers in the 17th century, introducing the Pueblos to wool from churro sheep they brought with them. The nomadic Navajos arrived from the North and learned weaving from the Pueblos. By the time they settled in "Navajoland," later to become the Navajo Reservation, they had learned to farm and raise their own sheep. And the weaving tradition continued to pass down from grandmother to mother to daughter.

Only about 125 active weavers live in the Two Grey Hills region today, and most of them rely upon loans and support from the Toadlena Trading Post. On average, their weavings earn them about $6,000 a year, but that's not bad when the typical Navajo only makes $6,500 a year. Only 22 percent of homes have a phone; more than half have no running water.

The elite weavers - and there are only two or three in the Two Grey Hills region - earn up to $20,000 a year for their work. Winter once paid $15,000 for one rug, but it was a year's work for the weaver.

And even though these grandmother weavers are the best in the world at what they do, their pay still only amounts to minimum wage, at best. The value of a weaving tends to be whatever the weaver needs at the moment, from a past-due car payment to medical bills to gasoline.

One grandmother, now 77, tells how she traded her first rug at the age of 11 for family groceries.

Mary Ann Foster, one of the best weavers in Two Grey Hills, serves lamb soup and fry bread to a visitor, and through an interpreter, tells how she sold her first rug almost 70 years ago: As a small child, she rode a horse with her sister to a distant trading post. The dawn-to-dusk ride earned her $10, more than she'd ever seen before.

And Winter bought new dentures for 87-year-old Clara Sherman, one of the best living Navajo weavers. Sherman still tends sheep from which she harvests her own wool.

"The weavers keep credit accounts as advances in the form of money, goods or services, which they pay with their rugs," Winter says. "This arrangement allows them to create without the everyday financial pressures that would prohibit them from doing their work. In fact, it encourages them to weave more and better."

Many art fads end in less time than it takes to weave a Navajo rug. Some larger pieces can take 18 months or longer.

Where weavers once earned only one-fourth to one-third of the final selling price of a blanket, Winter's weavers can receive half to three-fourths. Thus, the typical $3,500 blanket returns up to $2,600 directly to the artist.

In all, Winter pays about $400,000 a year for local blankets, although it often comes in the form of "loans" for groceries, bags of raw wool, gas, rent, even dental work. When the weavers bring finished blankets to the trading post, they negotiate a price and their debts are paid, harking back to accounting practices at frontier mercantiles.

Last year, Winter buttonholed many of his rich collectors and fellow traders to pay for an innovative weaving class at nearby Newcomb High School. This year, 18 students - including a few boys - are learning the traditions and techniques of Navajo weaving under the watchful eye of art teacher Barbara Thomas and weaver Rose Blueeyes.

Many of their students, some descended from Toadlena's old grandmothers, sold their first rugs to Winter.

"I wanted to learn something new, a part of our culture before it's gone," says Richard Bryan, 19, a Newcomb High School senior. "Weaving makes your brain work in a different way. You can do something completely new. It's not just a pattern."

Weaving's roots were practical more than artistic.

"In the old days, a Navajo woman couldn't get a good husband if she couldn't weave him a beautiful blanket to keep him warm," Winter says.

Like the same rug designs that pop up in different times and places, so do social attitudes.
One day at the trading post, some teenage boys leafed through the thousands of Polaroids Winter takes of weavers and their rugs as a historical record. When a clerk asked if they might be looking for relatives, the boys demurred."No," they said. "We're looking for weaver chicks."

Loosely translated, Winter says, they were shopping for potential girlfriends with spendable income. But the grandmothers happily stole the phrase and now commonly refer to themselves as the "weaver chicks."

In 32 years as a rug trader, Winter came to know individual weavers and families by their designs and techniques. He can glance at a rug and tell which family made it, and in some cases can spot telltale clues to a specific weaver. He even built a museum in the trading post to feature work by generations of weavers. As he wanders through, he points to the similarities between rugs made within families, and tells stories as if his own hands had been wrapped in spider webs.

So in helping to reinvigorate the art, he is also trying to associate work with its creators. Every rug he sells carries a biography and photo of its weaver, a family tree and any unique details.

"In 25 years of dealing with Navajo rugs, I'd never met an actual weaver," Winter says. "That's tragic. So now I want to see them get credit."

So far, he's only recouped about half his $2 million-plus investment in the Navajo Nation's weavers, largely financed by annual sales of more than $1 million in pricey antique blankets at his upscale Santa Fe shop, Relics of the Old West.

"You've gotta be careful what you wish for," he jokes. "I find myself selling my collection of old blankets to finance this new business."

But if Winter hasn't profited financially from his investment in Toadlena's weavers, it's made his soul richer.

"A lot of weavers who'd given up are now going back to the loom," he says. "It's gratifying to think we've made a difference here."