Weaver Discusses Her Navajo Traditions

April 29, 2016

Paul Cooley
By Paul Cooley

On the evening of April 14th, 2016, Charlene Laughing chronicled to the Sedona Westerners the remarkable story of her Navajo family, life and dedication to the craft of weaving with wool.

Ms. Laughing made her first piece of weaving in the Navajo tradition at the age of 8. She dedicated an entire summer to make the piece. She sold this piece in 1978 to a trading post in her hometown of Crystal, NM and used the money she was paid for it to buy shoes and clothes for school. Most of her weavings are made on a traditional upright Navajo loom.

Charling Laughing recently spoke to the Sedona Westerners about Navajo weaving and wool dyeing traditions and her Navajo family and dedication to the craft. Photo by Paul Cooley.

Ms. Laughing's mother, Mona, taught her the intricate art of weaving. Her Grandmother, who is 90 years old, taught the art to her Mother over 30 years ago. While many weavers today use commercially dyed wool for their works, Charlene has joined the trend for “slow cooking”: simmering her wool yarns gently. Charlene has three boys and one of them is learning the art, she said, and she is happy that the craft is being passed on to another generation.

Charlene detailed to the Westerners her daily routine at home which involves getting her family ready for work and school in the morning and then dedicating the majority of her day to weaving with a break for lunch, she also detailed to the audience the step by step procedure of preparing the wool for dying through the various stages of boiling water, selecting an appropriate container (the container itself can cause a color change to the wool she said) and aiding the dye and boiling it for the appropriate length of time.

Charlene stated that her favorite part of the craft is dying the wool. She uses both commercial dyes and vegetal dyes for her wool, she said. She said that she and her family buy white wool and then color it themselves. She told the audience of the many different substances she has used and experimented with for dying wool, some very successful, and others not so. She said she uses onion skins for yellows, coffees and teas for browns. She related that she buys walnuts from a vendor in Springfield, Illinois to produce another shade of brown. Ms. Laughing said she has also used native materials, like rabbit brush, and sage for green and wild carrots (gathered from near Chaco Canyon) for orange. One not so successful experiment she said was using Tabasco sauce for orange, while the color was acceptable the wool had a definite unpleasant odor to it. She said she has also experimented with Kale for the color purple, Spinach for the color green, cabbage for the color purple and has even used coffee from Starbucks for a variation of brown.

Ms. Laughing said she is draws on diverse sources for the inspiration for the designs in her weavings, such as Monument Valley landscapes, a saddle blanket, and belt and furniture designs that she sees in stores. Some of her designs, she said, are based on the borderless geometric banded rugs that weavers developed in her community of Crystal during the mid-twentieth century. In other textiles, she experiments with an innovative patchwork of different motifs. And in still others, she returns to designs on blankets and serapes of the nineteenth century and adapts them for her twenty-first century buyers.

Charlene has attended many art shows throughout the years including the Santa Fe Indian Market, Cherokee Art Market, Navajo Nation Fair and the Heard Museum Art show. Ms. Laughing explained that in the 35 years she’s spent weaving she has sold works to people throughout the country and the world, to such far-flung places as Germany and Japan. At the 2009 Southwest Indian Art Fair Charlene was the recipient of two Awards of Excellence, for "Germantown Men's Wearing Blanket" and "Crystal Rug." She is represented by Chimayo Trading and Mercantile, Chimayo, New Mexico. Some of her craft is on display and for sale at Garland's Navajo Rugs here in Sedona.

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