In ancient times, local craftsmen and women had only the materials locally available with which to develop the tools, clothing, and other equipment that made daily life function smoothly. Plants were relied upon heavily as a source of food, medicine, and materials with which to build things.
As it happened around the world and throughout time, the first Americans also gathered elements from their local environments to use to assist with the needful things that made daily living easier. The first materials used in making traditional Native Indian cloth illustrates this practice beautifully.
Leather was widely used for clothing since animals were found all across the continent. Plants were woven into baskets and mats, even shoes in some places. But it was in the American Southwest that cotton was used to create textiles that more resemble what we are familiar with today.
Evidence found today indicates the first true Native Indian cloth was made from cotton by the Pueblo, Zuni, and Ute tribes of the southwestern region of the United States. And it was the Navajos who seem to have left the lasting legacy with their beautiful rugs.
The Navajo Indian cloth was made using upright looms and was most often fashioned into blankets that were used for warmth and shelter as opposed to decorative adornment. The earliest Indian cloth blankets contained little or no pattern and color. The only pigments available for dying Indian cloth had to be gleaned from the harsh desert countryside.
Spanish explorers introduced sheep, and soon wool, to the peoples of the region and Native Indian cloth made from wool was soon fashioned into blankets. Imported yarns quickly became popular, too, especially the Bayeta red yarn that characterizes Navajo blankets today.
With the introduction of imported colored yarns and clothing from the American settlers, the variety and design of things made from Indian cloth became more complex and ceremonial. It was now feasible to weave highly prized beautiful Indian cloth that was used for ceremony and show, including the highly coveted Chief’s Blanket.
Modern technology in textiles and transportation have eliminated the need to use only locally gathered materials for making Indian cloth, clothing, and other items. In the few instances where these native materials are still used, however, the artisans and their works are considered extremely valuable.