If the weaver raises her own sheep, she will generally use hand shears to shear the wool from the sheep. There is very little electricity in many parts of the reservation, so electric shears are of little use. The shearing is generally done in the spring so the sheep are cool in the summer and have sufficient time to regrow their wool by winter.
After the wool is sheared from the sheep, it is picked clean of any debris. If necessary, the wool is washed with a soap made from yucca. The soap removes the dirt but doesn’t strip the wool of lanolin, which keeps it soft and pliable.
The wool is then carded, which aligns the fibers so they can be spun into yarn and also allows any dirt, sand or remaining debris to be removed. It is in this phase of yarn preparation that the “blending” of natural color wools is done to create the shades of greys and browns or tans that are found in blended wools.
Generally, spinning is done with a drop spindle. This technique allows the weaver to take her carded wool with her as she performs other chores, such as herding the sheep to new grazing areas. The texture and fineness of the yarn is determined by how many times it has been spun and stretched.
The amount of work necessary to create truly fine yarn is one reason why handspun textiles are so valued -- and why they are less frequently available. Many rugs are now woven with special commercially prepared yarns designed specifically for Navajo weaving. These yarns are not widely available beyond the areas of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
After the yarn has been spun to the appropriate texture and fineness, it can be dyed. This step alone adds a great deal to the number of hours necessary to properly prepare to weave a rug. When the wool is ready, the loom must be set up and prepared. A variety of things can be used for looms, everything from a dish drainer for small pieces to a cedar tree, which can provide shade as the weaver works.
The loom must have warp (vertical yarns) and weft (horizontal yarns). The warp provides the framework upon which the weft is woven to produce the pattern. It can take hundreds of yards of warp that must be set at consistent intervals of fineness before the pattern ever begins to take shape with the weft as they are woven together.
The weaving begins by pushing the shed rod or pulling the heddle as the warp is moved back and forth. The batten is used to separate the warp so that weft can be woven through.
After each weft is woven through the warp, the weaver uses a hardwood comb to tap the weft tightly and consistently into the warp. This tapping creates the unique sound of Navajo weaving which becomes the rhythm of the song used in traditional weaving.
The number of teeth in a weaving comb must match the tightness of the warp. This process creates the rug texture and takes much practice to keep consistent and uniform.
The pattern is held in the weaver’s mind and heart -- there are no written instructions for traditional weavings. This remarkable feat is made more complex by the fact that the rug is on the loom in a vertical position, but the patterns are often horizontal, so that the weaver must see the pattern unfold and keep perspective without being able to “see it right side up”.
There are a variety of textures to the weave of Navajo rugs from a simple basket weave in which the warp and weft are equally visible, to a twill or tapestry weave which is more complex. Each of these requires different techniques on the loom and adds to the skill required to produce a fine rug.