It is generally thought that Navajo weaving began under the influence of the Pueblo Indians in the 1700s. Original designs were simple stripes in the colors of wool that were available from sheep raised by the Navajo (black, white and brown).
By the 1800s the Navajo were widely recognized for the quality of their spinning and weaving and the designs began to become more creative, including some geometric elements.
The introduction of pre-dyed and pre-spun yarn changed the texture and type of weaving done by the Navajo. Originally the weavings consisted of blankets and dresses, but with the introduction of these new yarns and the colonization of the West, warmer and softer blankets and dresses could be purchased, rather than handwoven.
Around 1900 Navajo weaving was heavily influenced by the traders who purchased the weavings. The traders shifted the demand to weavings that could be used as floor coverings or rugs. During this time, borders were introduced to the rugs and the rug patterns became more complex and creative. The wild combination of colors that were now available in commercial dyes were rejected by the traders and many weavings in this period were limited to black, red, grey and white because those were the colors in demand.
In the 1920s and 1930s the quality of the rugs declined and rugs were often bought by the pound, sometimes sight unseen, without regard to complexity of the pattern or the fineness of the weaving. This trend began to shift in the 1930s after the U.S. Indian Arts and Crafts Board began to encourage exhibitions in major cities in the United States. The Navajo weavers recognized that they received higher prices for their weaving if they had been recognized as fine weavers at these competitions.
However, even today, the price of rugs seldom reflects the amount of effort necessary to complete a weaving. For example a 3'x5' foot rug can take up to 2000 hours to complete, depending upon the fineness of the yarn and the tightness of the texture. This would not include the time it would take to sheer the sheep, card and clean the wool, spin it and dye it, sometimes then respinning it for a tighter texture. The more complex the pattern and the more colors involved in the pattern, the more difficult and time consuming the weaving process becomes.
Very traditional weavers will not weave a rug without the appropriate song and prayers. As the weaver completes the rug, they often release themselves from the rug by weaving a personal symbol into the rug, or they may include the frequently-seen spirit line woven from the pattern to the edge of the rug.
The Adopt-A-Native-Elder Program supports traditional weavers in an attempt to not only provide money to the weaver (all proceeds from the sale of the Elder's rugs go directly to the weaver), but also to encourage young weavers to learn their art from the Elders before the patterns and traditions are lost forever (see For the Children Program).