STRING

Weaving is an art very much like basketry and sometimes the two use the same methods. The main difference is that a basketmaker works mostly with stiff materials, while the weaver uses flexible string or yarn. This does not mean mere fibre, whether in one strand or many. It means two or more strands of fibre twisted together, for strength. Package twine, sewing silk, and heavy rope are all made of twisted strands and so was the string made by early peoples, all over the world. String, in fact, must have been one of the first inventions and one wonders how any people got along without this way of fastening things together.

The Basketmakers made string from yucca fibre, milkweed, Indian hemp, and cedar bark. Yucca fibre was the commonest. They would wet the leaves, stems or bark, pound them up between two stones, and pull out the fibres. Then the man, who was probobly the weaver even then, would lay two of these against his bare right thigh and roll them down with the palm of his right hand to twist the strands and then back to twist them together. For coarse string, or for the weaving of rabbitskin blankets to be described later, a very little twisting was enough. For stronger and finer string, the twist must be tighter. Sometimes he took two already twisted strings and rolled them together, thus making a four-ply strand. For specially good string, he used some of his wife's long hair. The looks of Basketmaker mummies convince the diggers that it was women who gave up their hair for ropemaking and not men. Now and then, buffalo or dog hair was available also but that was short and needed much rolling and matting.

Twined Weaving, Pueblo people used this homemade string until the railroads came. They still make some. They needed it for snares, nets, belts, and fastening. They also combined it with fibres, stiff or soft, and made bags, sandals, and straps which looked almost like heavy cloth. They were hardly that, for they were not made on a loom and they were done by the old basketry method of twining (see page 27) in which two strands are worked in and out with the fingers across another set of strands, and twined together at every intersection. (True weaving, as we shall see later, requires only one cross strand and no twining.)

Then came the next step which brought them to the very threshold of weaving. They made string out of fur or feathers and twined it with yucca cord into the blankets, (Plate 111-1) which were used almost up to modern times. The work was done with the fingers, as basketry is, and there was no mechanical arrangement for separating the threads such as we shall describe later as being necessary in a loom. So this process, which made a loose, netlike fabric, is sometimes called finger weaving.

Twining a rabbitskin

Plate 111-1. Twining a rabbitskin blanket with vertical warp.

Fur Blankets

The foundation strands were made from a rope of fur or feathers which might be fifty feet long. If it was fur, it was made by cutting skins of rabbits or other small animals into strips about a quarter inch wide and wrapping these about a yucca cord so that the beginning of each one overlapped the end of the one before it. If the skins were twisted on when wet, they would dry in that position as firmly as if they were sewed. This would make a rope about half an inch thick but often it was made even thicker by doubling it and twisting two ropes together as string was twisted. If the rope was to be of feathers, the worker took the downy feathers from a turkey's breast, split them and cut off the long quill end, leaving about half an inch of flexible quill which would curl when wet as a dandelion stem curls.

He curled this around the yucca cord, so that it fastened down the end of the first and so on. This feather rope was just as thick and soft as the fur rope but weighed much less.

To make the rope into a blanket, the weaver looped it back and forth across two bars spaced the width of a blanket apart. Readers of "The Northern Paiute Indians" will remember that they, too, made this blanket and that their two bars were often the opposite sides of a large wooden frame, standing upright or supported on the ground. Pueblo people may sometimes have had such frames or they may have lashed the bars to floor and ceiling. Bars have actually been found in the ruins, with cords of some sort looped across them and knotted fast. Often, too, they may have used only one bar and let the loops hang free, a method which weavers testify is very convenient when passing long twining cords around them.

We shall call these foundation strands by the regular weaver's term, "warp," which means a set of strands held firmly in place while another set of movable strands is passed through them. The movable strands are known as weft, or woof. These are old English words, as are most of the terms of weaving, come down from the days when English people wove their own wool on homemade looms. The Anasazi weft was yucca string, in twined rows, spaced rather far apart. The diagram (111-2) shows how this was done in one old fur blanket, found in a cave of northeastern Arizona. The upright warp strands, which represent the fur or feather ropes, are looped over a bar and placed farther apart than they would really be, for clearness. The twined weft begins at a, where it is tied, and is composed of two strands, one colored white for clearness, and the other black. The two strands pass across the blanket to a point outside the diagram, then turn and come back in another row of twining some distance below the first. The arrangement at b shows how this turn is made. The black weft strand loops over two warps instead of one, then comes back and twists with the white strand. The twist lies parallel with the warps for a little way, then the white strand loops over two warps and comes back to twine with the black strand across the blanket again. This makes the edge of the blanket particularly strong. Another way to do this was to wrap an extra weft strand over the two outermost warps all the way down their length in a series of loops like a buttonhole stitch in sewing. Probably there were many other ways for strengthening the edge and each weaver suited himself.

Edge finish for a rabbitskin blanket

Plate 111-2. Edge finish for a rabbitskin blanket.

The result was quite worthy to be called a blanket. Yet the pueblos could not go on to other blankets, with firmer fabric and finer threads, until they had a mechanical invention, the loom. It is an interesting fact that the true loom, in America, arrived hand in hand with cotton. Indians in many parts of the continent had finger weaving with dog hair, mountain goat hair, buffalo hair, and vegetable fibres but (except just possibly with the Cherokee) they did not get a real loom until they got cotton and they did not get cotton without the loom.