Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The cavernous nineteenth-­century factory buildings of Philadelphia’s John Wilde & Brother, the oldest independent rug yarn mill in the United States, seem out of place against the trendy restaurants and galleries of Manayunk, a showplace of modern urban renewal in the city’s greater Germantown neighborhood. A mural on the wall of the smallest mill building depicts images suggestive of Southwest Indian weaving. Two thousand miles west, on a dusty road running through the New Lands community of the Navajo Nation, the R. B. Burnham Trading Post, in Arizona, one of the last remaining old-time Indian trading posts on the vast Navajo Reservation, seems, too, like a place somewhere out-of-time.

Although worlds apart culturally and geographically, John Wilde & Brother and the R. B. Burnham Trading Post form the heart of the Germantown Renaissance, a remarkable convergence of tradition and technology that’s pumping new life into the art of the Navajo rug weaving and boosting the Philadelphia mill, a landmark of the neighborhood’s history as a textile center renowned throughout the world for its fine stockings, fabrics, and woolen yarns. The Germantown Renaissance saga spans two centuries and two weaving traditions. It’s also the story of how Germantown yarn twice sparked a revolution in Navajo weaving and design, first in the nineteenth century and now, again, at the dawning of the twenty-first.

Mennonite families seeking a haven from religious persecution settled in 1683 in what is now Philadelphia’s German­town section. Because many early residents were highly skilled weavers, by the eighteenth century Germantown had become known for the exceptional quality of its fabric and stockings. Its location along the Wissahickon Creek and the Wngohocking Creek, enabled the area to become an important manufacturing center. English weavers possessing advanced spinning and weaving skills and armed with new technology began arriving about 1800. In 1825, Thomas Fisher opened the first knitting mill in the United States and, with the introduction in the 1860s of elaborate carding machinery previously available only in Europe, the production of fine worsted yarns became Germantown’s specialty. By the mid­-nineteenth century-long before the advent of brand name marketing ­Germantown had become synonymous with the nation’s finest woolens. Its prominence as a textile center made it ideal for the introduction of synthetic aniline dyes, the first used in the United States. Not long after opening in 1880, John Wilde & Brother emerged as a highly respected producer of quality carpet yarn.

In the Southwest, Navajo weavers, who had learned the craft from their pueblo neighbors, contributed their own inventiveness and technical precision. By the early nineteenth century, they were regionally famed for their tightly woven, waterproof blankets, and their prized Navajo chief’s blankets were highly valued in barter with neighboring tribes. For the Dine (Navajo for “the people”) weaving was more than a means of providing comfort and economic support, more than an art, and more than a tradition binding families and generations; it was central to the Navajo way of life, with its own songs, stories, myths, taboos, and prayers.

While the Civil War raged on the East Coast during the summer of 1863, most notably in Pennsylvania at Gettysburg during the first three days of July, the Navajo were in the grips of the “fearing time” as the U.S. Army, guided by Kit Carson, carried out a campaign to starve them into submission. Carson’s troops burned crops, orchards, and shelters. They slaughtered sheep. They laid the land to waste. They drove the Navajo people on a grueling three-month march across New Mexico to Fort Sumner and exiled them to a desolate internment camp near the New Mexico-Texas border at Bosque Redondo. It was a death march the Dine called the Long Walk. No one knows exactly how many marched, and how many died, but researchers estimate that of the nine thousand Navajos who started on the Long Walk, more than half perished of hunger, disease, or exposure along the way or during their four years of captivity, from 1864 to 1868. To provide clothing and shelter for the ragged prisoners in its charge, the U.S. Army ordered Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Arsenal to ship caseloads of supplies, including blankets and woolen yarn from mills in Germantown, for Navajo women to weave into blankets.

Germantown’s yarn also provided something perhaps even more essential to survival than clothing and shelter. For the Dine, whose traditional worldview centers on the importance of living in a state of harmony, balance and, above all, beauty, it provided a way of creating beauty in the midst of cultural upheaval, uncertainty, and despair. For the Navajos at Bosque Redondo, Germantown yarn provided an unprecedented experience. Unlike their traditional homespun, it was finely spun, lightweight, evenly textured and, thanks to the Germantown mills’ adoption of recently developed synthetic aniline dyes, brightly colored. Combining their traditional native patterns with adaptations of the serrated designs they observed in the fancy Saltillo serapes worn by neighboring Spanish colonial vaqueros and wealthy landowners, Navajo weavers used the Germantown yarns to create dazzling blankets that transformed weaving from a utilitarian act of survival to an artistic affirmation of cultural identity.

Recognizing that Bosque Redondo was a terrible mistake, military leaders and Navajo chiefs signed the Navajo-United States Treaty of 1868, and at dawn on June 18, the Dine left Fort Sumner to begin the journey home. Their traditional source of meat and wool decimated, survivors remained dependent on government supplies, distributed first by the military and then by traders licensed by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. Among the yearly payments the federal government continued to provide for a decade after their homecoming were thousands of pounds of woolen yarns from German­town, calculated by textile scholar Joe Ben Wheat to have totaled at least seventy-five thousand pounds, or enough yarn for twenty-five thousand three-­pound weavings. Juxtaposing the yarn’s new aniline palette in an unprecedented use of boldly imaginative color combinations, experimenting with increasingly complex elaborations on the basic geometric patterns they first combined at Bosque Redondo, and with pictorial images such as trains, horses, and American flags – which each weaver combined according to her fancy – Navajo weavers developed their artistry to an unparalleled sophistication in works that have become known as “Germantowns.”

The years following the Long Walk marked an unsettling era of transition for the Navajo that corresponded with the heyday for Germantowns, a period that endured until the turn-of-the-century. Arrival of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad through the southern edge of the reservation in 1880-1881 introduced factory-processed goods to the Navajo and, in turn, the mass marketing of their Germantown weavings by the first of the reservation’s Indian traders. John Lorenzo Hubbell became the leading purveyor of Southwest Indian art to Fred Harvey’s famous hotel chain of Harvey Houses which, teamed with the railroad, mounted a campaign to market tourist travel to the Southwest. Hubbell’s former partner, C. N. Cotton, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s largest wholesaler of Navajo blankets by selling to the carriage trade firms of New York’s Tiffany & Co. and Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker, and by publishing, in 1896, the first mail order catalogue of blankets.

The Cotton catalogue’s “Large Fancy Blankets woven from Germantown yarn,” constituted the finest examples of Navajo weaving. In an age when six dollars a week was an excellent workingman’s salary, at twenty-five to seventy five dollars for a large Germantown blanket – as compared to five to fifteen dollars for large native wool fancy blankets – German­towns were expensive. Their extremely tight, tapestryfine craftsmanship represented a considerable investment in hand labor. “The material also is expensive,” the catalogue explained, “hence the prices are high compared with those of the coarser texture and weaving. Chemicals used in manufacturing aniline dyes were imported and costly. Because Germantown yarn cost approximately twenty cents per cut (a small skein weighing several ounces) compared with an average of five cents per pound for native yarn, it was generally made available to only the best weavers.

Widely credited with sustaining the Navajo weaving tradition during the years of radical social change, Ger­mantown yarn sparked a design revolution, one of the most creative eras in the centuries-old history of Navajo weaving. Lauding German­town Fancy Blanket designs, “produced in endless combination, and often in brilliant kaleidoscopic grouping,” Cotton’s 1896 Navajo blanket catalogue extolled “the greatest charm of these Navajo blankets” as “the unrestrained freedom shown by the weaver in her treatment of primitive conventions.” The new design influences and synthetic palette suddenly offered weavers unlimited opportunities for experimentation, a freedom they exercised with great exuberance. To the simple stripes and diamonds of their classic chief’s blankets and other traditional motifs, weavers added vertical stacks of diamonds, serrated edges, and borders adapted from Saltillo design elements of the serapes worn by the Spanish Colonial settlers near Bosque Redondo.

Reflected in as many as a dozen colors, even the simplest of these patterns could be made to appear dizzyingly complex. Daring juxtapositions of vivid color combinations, such as orange and purple, red and bright green, and yellow and indigo, worked into overlapping fields of stepped and serrated stripes, concentric crosses, diamonds, and zigzags, created high-energy, seemingly three-dimensional effects.

Spring 1893 marked the opening of the World’s Colombian Exposition, hosted by Chicago to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. As historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) delivered his famous speech on the closing of the American frontier, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” a nearby pavilion displayed an example of extraordinary Germantown multi-pattern weaving, an overall design composed of blocks of smaller, self-contained designs. Ironically, the exhibition of this exceptionally beautiful weaving, as well as the publication of Cotton’s inaugural Navajo blanket catalogue, came as the heyday of Navajo weaving with Germantown yarn was about to be brought to a screeching halt. Turner’s frontier thesis heralded a seismic shift in the spirit of the age as the tum-of-the-century brought a reaction against industrialism and introduced a wave of nostalgia for tile natural, unspoiled lifestyle of pre-industrial society embodied in America’s “primitive” Indian cultures and the rugged values of its Old West. Germantowns, with their dazzling synthetic colors and their sophisticated designs so intricately hand woven by Navajo artists using factory-spun yarn, fell victim to this rejection of the industrial age and anything “factory made.”

Catering to the penchant for nostalgia and the corresponding interest in the collection of more seemingly “culturally authentic” native artifacts, Indian traders led by John B. Moore, whose 1911 catalogue proclaimed that he forbade the use of Germantown yarns, began encouraging weavers to return to their old ways of working with yarn processed entirely by hand. The Germantown weaving styles so recently celebrated for the beauty of their rainbow colors and fanciful designs were derided as “Eye­dazzlers” by influential self-styled authorities of Southwest Indian art and culture who, condemning the dizzying color combinations and kinetic designs, roundly criticized Navajo weavers for having “gone on a color jag.”

The dramatic turnabout in public taste and its impact on Navajo design was reflected even by the catalogues issued by C. N. Cotton, once one of the German­town style’s greatest champions. By 1919, his rhapsodies extolling the beauties of Germantown fancy blankets had given way to advice to discerning housewives that Navajo blankets were no longer merely “a novelty – a riot of vivid colors – to be used only in a den for a curio as a souvenir of a western trip ….When you own a true Navajo Blanket you have something untouched by a machine. Something made by hand, something that is individual …” And so, the use of Germantown yarn was banished from Navajo weaving. Brilliant colors gave way to a smaller, subdued natural palette of browns, grays, and earthy tones judged to be better suited to decorate the floors of late-Victorian era parlors. The sophistication of authentic Navajo and Hispano-Indian inspired Eyedazzler designs gave way to trader­-imposed patterns dominated, ironically, by quasi-Oriental “native Indian” patterns promoted by the influential traders at J.B. Moore’s Crystal Trading Post, Two Gray Hills, and Hubbell’s. The Eyedazzler was dead and with it the colorful era that celebrated the Navajo weaver’s freedom of artistic self-­expression.

With the banishing of Germantown yarn by reservation traders, trader-imposed constraints on the design and required use of handspun yarn dominated twentieth-century Navajo weaving. The constraints did, nonetheless, assure generations of weavers of a reliable return for their work-until the years following World War II again brought changes to Navajo life as dramatic as the changes in the years following the Long Walk. Conversion to a cash economy on the Navajo Reservation spelled the demise of the traditional trader-based barter system that had enabled a weaver and her family to trade for months of groceries and supplies against the sale of a rug. Extended periods without trader-­advanced credit for time spent on the many steps of hand processing yarn before long hours of weaving could even begin made it increasingly difficult for all but the most celebrated and highly paid weavers to earn the most meager of livelihoods. The design constraints, which had also reduced even the master weavers from visual artists to highly skilled technicians, offered little incentive for their daughters and granddaughters to turn to the loom as their form of creative self-expression. The time-honored tradition of Navajo weaving was once again threatened with becoming a lost art.

Fourth-generation trader R. B. “Bruce” Burnham, among the last remaining old-style traders on the Navajo reservation, grew sad as he watched the years claim weavers he had known for decades. Sadder still, the weavers’ daughters and granddaughters no longer stood ready to inherit their ancestors’ artistic traditions. Concern for the economic survival of Navajo weavers, and for the Navajo weaving tradition itself, led Burnham on a ten-year search to find a quality factory-processed woolen yarn that could imitate the look, feel, and durability of Navajo homespun to free weavers from the time-­consuming preparation of yarn before weaving could even begin. Burnham’s search eventually led him to “Convergence,” the annual convention of the Handweavers Guild of America, where he met Russell Fawley, third-generation owner of John Wilde & Brother.

“I’ll never forget that hot day in Dallas sometime in the late eighties,” Fawley recalls. “We had a display there and so did Bruce. It was my first exposure to Navajo rugs.” As they began to talk, Burnham described his problem. “When Bruce and the weavers weren’t working with hand-carded, handspun yarns, they had been using worsted from a spinner in Nebraska. Rather than this soft, almost flimsy worsted, he was looking for a rug yarn that was a little rougher and more uneven, a more natural looking yarn. He wanted to try to imitate Navajo home­spun. I worked to come up with a yarn that matched what Bruce was looking for in ply and weight.” In John Wilde & Brother, still employing imported carding and spinning machinery that hasn’t been made in more than fifty years, and in Russell Fawley, one of the last practitioners of the lost art of custom yarn blending, Burnham had found the right – and possibly the only – people equal to the job. “Unlike most oilier mills, we’re heavily into the custom yarn business,” explains Fawley. “I’m the one that does that. I guess you could say I analyze yarns to come up with a match. It’s an art, not a science. I often equate it to making soup – a little of this, a little of that. Very few other spinners deal in small quantities like this.”

For “a couple of old mavericks,” as Burnham calls Fawley and himself, developing the new Navajo rug yarn represented a gamble. “Over a period of a year or so of trial and error, we came up with a line that we call ‘Wilde and Wooly.’ Bruce determined the colors from his experience of what colors are used in traditional rugs from various parts of the reservation.” So far so good.

“Bruce had some convincing at first to do with the weavers,” Fawley recalls. “He had to convince them that they would do better financially because their rugs would look more natural, be more durable and so get better prices.” Wilde & Wooly Navajo Rug Yarn allows skilled Navajo weavers to produce a quality rug in approximately one-third the time it would take working from handspun and sell it for nearly twice the price. This significant difference is encouraging a return to weaving as a viable source of income. Burnham estimates that Wilde & Wooly yarns are now used in roughly half of all the Navajo rugs woven on the reservation today, signaling a comeback for Gennantown yarn.

“We had started to work on this when they had an exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994,” Fawley recalls, referring to “A Burst of Brilliance: Germantown, Pennsylvania, and Navajo Weaving.” Encouraged by the reception of Wilde and Wooly for weaving the standard Navajo rug patterns, Burnham wondered if exposure to historic Eyedazzler designs and availability of bright “Germantown” yarn colors might revive the same spirit of experimentation and creativity in today’s Navajo weavers that once inspired the brilliantly colored Germantown “Eyedazzlers” woven by their ancestors. Taking this next step again required Fawley’s duplication of the yarn. “I analyzed the ply and weight and used finer wool to simulate the old worsted weight.” Color was the next challenge. “One of the concerns we had in developing these Germantown revival yarns was should we be matching the colors as they are or as they were then? Some of the colors took a bit of work. Bruce would send us samples of what he wanted,” chuckled Fawley, “and for one of our colors, ‘transition red,’ he sent us a piece of plastic from a bread wrapper with the note, ‘This is it!'” Hoping liberation from the drudgery of yarn processing and the new seventeen-color Wilde and Wooly yarn palette would provide Navajo weavers with the opportunity to concentrate on the quality of their weaving and graphic design, Burnham and his wife, Virginia, a Navajo and an artist, put it to the test. The results exceeded their wildest dreams. Beginning with a small group of adventuresome weavers, the German­town Renaissance has emerged as the second Germantown yarn-inspired revolution in Navajo weaving and design.

For the Germantown Renaissance weavers, and the Navajo people who are beginning to admire their artistry, the modern return to working with German­town yarn is providing new oppor­tunities to learn from and appreciate the stabilizing influence of weaving as a family and cultural tradition. A gallery in the back room of the Burnham trading post is drawing more and more Navajos who come in just to look. “They’re fascinated with these color combinations and designs, just as I think they were a century ago,” Burnham observes.

Many Germantown Renaissance weavers have their own special reasons for identifying with the feelings of dislocation and longing for a distant homeland experienced by their ancestors who wove the first Germantowns. Caught in the crossfire of the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and ordered by the court to abandon their ancestral homes, these weavers are among the Navajos relocated to the New Lands of the reservation near Sanders, Arizona. Despite the warm welcome of the Burnhams, who relocated to Sanders to help provide economic and cultural continuity for the displaced, New Lands is a “no-man’s-land” caught somewhere between the old ways of Dine traditional life and the modern world for these Nava­jos, many of whom who refer to themselves as “the people of the Second Long Walk.” For some, the reconnection to their family and cultural traditions evoked in the creative act of weaving the brilliant new Eyedazzlers from Germantown yarn is offering a way to walk again in beauty and to piece together the broken rainbow of their lives.


For Further Reading

Bonar, Eulalie, ed. Woven by the Grand­mothers: Nineteenth-Century Navajo Textiles from the National Museum of the American Indian. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Brody, J.J. Between Traditions: Navajo Weaving Toward the End of the Nineteenth Century. Iowa City University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1976.

Rodee, Marian E. One Hundred Years of Navajo Rugs. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Wheat, Joe Ben. Blanket Weaving in the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.

Wheat, Joe Ben, and Lucy Fowler Williams. A Burst of Brilliance: Germantown, Pennsylvania and Navajo Weaving. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Whitaker, Kathleen, et al. Southwest Textiles: Weavings of the Pueblo and Navajo. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.

Willink, Roseann Sandoval, and Paul G. Zol­brod. Weaving A World: Textiles and the Navajo Way of Seeittg. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1996.


The author thanks “a couple of old mavericks,” trader R. B. “Bruce” Burnham and John Wilde & Brother owner Russell Fawley; the Navajo Germantown Renaissance Weavers, who have given so generously of themselves; and photographer Bruce Hucko, whose images reflect the spirit of the weavers’ lives and works.


Linda Kowall-Woal served as guest curator for “Eyedazzlers: The Two-Century Romance of Navajo Weaving and Germantown Yarn,” recently on exhibit at Philadelphia’s Sedgwick Cultural Center. A native Philadelphi­an, she spent the last ten years in Gallup, New Mexico, on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation. She had served as guest co-curator of major exhibitions in Philadelphia devoted to filmmaker Siegmund “Pop” Lubin, at the National Museum of American Jewish His­tory, and the history of the city’s broadcast industry, at the Atwater Kent Museum.