From the 1870s to around 1905 government licensed traders provided commercially spun and dyed woolen yarns to the Navajos for rug weaving. These yarns were spun and dyed at the mills in Germantown, Pennsylvania and transported to the Southwest via the newly constructed railroad.
The Navajos embraced the new yarn as it eliminated the need to shear their sheep, wash the wool, card the wool, and hand spin it with a drop spindle on their thigh. Plus, the fine yarns came in many bright colors – already dyed with commercial aniline dyes.
Many fine rugs were woven with this new yarn. The bright new colors ushered in a new era of detailed and bright intricately designed “eye dazzler” rugs. They would occasionally latch hook fringe with the extra yarns – especially on saddle blankets.
Since the Navajo weavers were no longer spinning their own wool, they needed a source for their warp thread (foundation thread). The early traders began providing cotton string for their warp. This created a problem, as Navajo Rugs were known to be strong and durable with hand spun wool warp – but the cotton string would break easily. This significantly reduced the durability of these new rugs and over time the demand for the commercial yarn rugs ceased.
Soon, the traders could no longer sell Germantown weavings, and around 1900 they took the commercial yarns off the shelf and encouraged the weavers to go back to using their own hand spun wool. Thus, most Germantown weavings hail from the late 1870s – 1900 era.
Since Navajo weavers had access to Germantown yarn for only a short period of time, relatively few Germantown rugs were woven and larger sizes are particularly scarce. Germantown rugs were not sturdy enough to be used as floor rugs and not warm enough to be used as blankets, but their use as wall hangings emerged over time. Today, Germantown weavings are among the most popular antique Navajo weavings. Their bright colors and intricate designs offer a view into a brief and fascinating time in Navajo Rug history.