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“Rugs for Trade or Cash”

by Sallie R. Wagner

In 1938, Sallie Wagner and Bill Lippincott came to Wide Ruins, Arizona, in Navajo country. There they ran a trading post until the end of World War II (1941-1945), when the return of soldiers and the construction of more roads made reservation life less isolated. Wagner encouraged the Navajo weavers to use natural vegetable dyes for their rugs and blankets. Today, Wide Ruins Navajo rugs are well known for their fine weaving and natural colors.

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Navajo Rug, 1900-1915“Navajo Rug, 1900-1915,” Unidentified Navajo (Artist)

When my husband and I bought the trading post, the Navajos in the area were making very poor rugs, the kind that were sold from knocked-together stands along Highway 66. The wool was not well cleaned or well spun. The bordered designs were the kind that had originated in Oriental rugs or were crossed arrows and swastikas, and the colors were red, black, and white—the designs and colors usually thought of as “Indian.” We had seen the very beautiful rugs that the weavers at Canyon de Chelly produced, and we hoped to guide the Wide Ruins weavers into the production of beautiful rugs too. We knew they were capable of such work.

Patience was needed when dickering for a rug. In the store the weaver would trade her work for flour, sugar, velveteen, and what not. She always finished the trade by asking for five or ten cents worth of lollipops. But the transaction did not take place immediately. With the rug neatly wrapped in a flour sack, the weaver would stand inside the door for a few minutes greeting particular friends with a touching of hands. After all, a visit to the trading post is an event—an event to be savored and strung out. Sooner or later the bundle would be silently placed on the counter and one of us would unhurriedly set it on the scale.

In the past, some storekeepers bought by weight and a rug would be bought by the pound. But that ignored the aesthetic value of the piece. At Wide Ruins we weighed the bundle only to estimate the amount of wool that had been used, which we would use as a base for our judgment of its worth. With the weaver trailing along we would take the rug into a back room of the store, spread it out, and point out the good points and the occasional bad ones. The woman would not be embarrassed by an audience.

The Complete Story of a Navajo Blanket, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona“The Complete Story of a Navajo Blanket, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona,” Unidentified (Artist)

Hosteen Glish's family made some of the best rugs and were by far the most prolific weavers. Hosteen Kee's wife, Kee Chester's wife, Mary Gaddy, and Hosteen Glish's wife were among them. They always seemed to have rugs on their looms that would command high prices. It was a joy to see what Glish's wife brought in, but for the men behind the counter it was also a trial to deal with her. She would lay the rug, still done up in its flour-sack wrappings, on the counter and arbitrarily demand a certain price. We always tried to pay as much as we thought the market would bear and made very little profit when we sold the rugs. I know that our high prices were an important incentive for the Indians to turn out the kind of rugs that we liked. But no matter what we offered Mrs. Glish, and it was often what she demanded, she would begin to weep and ask for more. This routine unhinged the men so she always tried to deal with them instead of with Jean Cousins or me. We were not so easily bamboozled. Muttering to herself: she would finally agree. Nearly always, one of the purchases she made with her rug money was a Pendleton shawl. Such blankets are made in Pendleton, Oregon, for the Indian trade. There are fringed ones for women, unfringed for men. Mrs. Glish had stacks of them in her hogan, piled up against the walls or stowed away in small trunks and footlockers.

I knew nothing whatever of weaving when we first went to Wide Ruins and I still find double weaves and two-faced rugs incomprehensible. Some of the Navajo women thought that I should learn about the craft firsthand, so they set up a loom for me and provided me with undyed yarn and the proper wooden implements. They then watched my progress with critical eyes. I dyed some of the yarn with the yellow wood of the holly berry and some with tea and set to work. The resultant rug was not one that the post would have given much cash or credit for, but I was proud of it and the women were too. It was displayed in the next trading-post rug show and looked simply awful alongside the ones that were expertly made. But it was the center of attention—and criticism.

Interior of the Trading Post at Wide Ruins“Interior of the Trading Post at Wide Ruins,” Unidentified (Photographer)

Soon the demand for Wide Ruins weavings exceeded the supply. We raised our prices accordingly, and raised the amount we gave the weavers. The prices never reached the fantastic heights that rugs are selling for now in the 1990s, but the Wide Ruins products did command a much higher price than the average Navajo rug.

For several months during the first year at the post we refused to buy any rugs that had designs. We demanded plain stripes. We found that these were almost impossible to sell, particularly as the wool was still not clean or well spun. So all our friends got dog blankets for Christmas that year. But once the stripes were well established to the exclusion of the arrows and swastikas, we began to insist that the yarn be improved. After that aspect of the project was mastered, we hung some of the Chinle rugs from Canyon de Chelly on the store walls. We then told the customers how much we liked them and we encouraged them to do similar patterns. We would not tolerate borders, principally because of a personal reaction of mine that makes me want to jump from bordered rug to bordered rug when I encounter them on the floor.

Navajo Woman Weaving a Rug, ca. 1900s“Navajo Woman Weaving a Rug, ca. 1900s,” Unidentified (Photographer)You’ll need 3-D glasses to view this Anaglyph image. Don’t have a pair? Request 3-D glasses right away!

We were insistent on vegetable dye colors and suspiciously questioned any woman who seemed to have used store-bought dyes. Although we did overpay when a woman would bring in a poorly made vegetable-dyed rug, we knew that she was trying. There were many failed experiments before the weavers got the hang of it. One day a crotchety old weaver came in and slammed a bundled rug down on the counter. We opened it to find, woven into one band in angry black letters, the words Vegetable Dye Rug. That one we bought. But usually when they brought in a rug that had pictures or letters in the design we asked them to take it back and reweave it. It was not that we really objected to the occasional tapestry of that kind, but the women tended to go hog-wild with such designs, while we were more interested in the production of rugs that could blend in with any type of interior decor. We felt not only that the rug market could be expanded but that resale prices could be higher. And so it was proven.

Over the years we paid more and more to the weavers, yet we were always able to sell all our stock. We never did sell rugs through the wholesale houses in Gallup. At first, when they were such low-quality rugs, we sold them to vendors who peddled them along the highway. By 1940, as they got better and better, the Wide Ruins rugs had an established reputation and buyers came to the post looking for them. We sold to individuals, museums, and interior decorating shops in both the East and the West.