Navajo Wool Washing

Navajo RugsAfter the wool is spun and before it is dyed, it must be washed a second time. The weaver pours water into a large kettle and heats it on the stove. When the water is hot, she puts it into a metal bowl, then adds some cold water to make it lukewarm. If you wash the wool in very hot water, the wool will shrink and becomes coarse, and no longer good quality. Detergent, either commercial or yucca root, is added to the water to soak the yarn. The yarn blends with the soapsuds as the weaver swishes and rubs it.

After several washings, the wool is rinsed, until the water is clean. The wool is pressed gently to remove water, and hung to dry. The weaver is careful to gently remove the water; not to squeeze, twist or wring out the wool, which can cause lumping or knotting of the fibers.

Felting happens when you agitate or rub wet wool fleece, yarn, or fabric. It’s wonderful to make felt on purpose, but weavers are careful to handle the wool as little and as gently as possible, to avoid accidental felting when washing.

Some weavers wrap the wet wool between two fence posts, so a slight breeze moves the yarn and the wool will dry. The weaver checks the wool for unwanted lumps, removing them, and wraps the yarn, stretching it in the process, until it becomes a uniform size. After removing any knots, the weaver loops the clean dry yarn around her hand and arm to form a neat bundle.

Unlike wool from modern commercial breeds, wool from primitive carpet-wool sheep such as Churro is low in lanolin, and does not require extensive cleaning or time-consuming carding. It can be shorn, cleaned, then spun into tightly twisted yarn that readily absorbs indigo and native vegetal dyes, from which the Navajo artists create weavings famous for their exceptional luster, fine texture, and durability.