By Artist-Writer Donniece Smith
A recent visit to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico set me on a search to learn more about a Native American weaving custom called a spirit line.
The exhibit Nizhoni Shima’: Master Weavers of the Toadlena/Two Grey Hills Region filled the museum gallery with beautiful rugs and tapestries woven by Navajo women of the Two Grey Hills region of New Mexico between 1910 and the present.
Each tapestry was of the highest quality woven by a master weaver of the highest skill, yet all contained an obvious out-of-character thread. In the upper right corner, a strand of the central background color wove through the contrasting border and extended to the outer selvedge. If you were to only see one rug, you could easily assume the contrasting thread was a mistake in the weaving. This obvious thread is deliberately woven into the rug per tradition and is called a spirit line or weaver’s path.
The practice signifies the release of the weaver’s spirit from the weaving so that the artist’s creativity can escape the woven web to be renewed and freed to begin another weaving.
A Navajo woman told this story documented in the oral history project by Paul Begay, Voices for the Colorado Plateau, Southern Utah University:
So, my grandson,” my grandmother says. “When you look at a spider web somewhere, in your home or someplace, look closely, and if you don’t see a spider there, you’ll see a line, the direction that the spider departed. That’s why when you make a rug, in one corner of the weave, there should be a line that comes out to the end of the rug, we call it the spirit line….
When you leave this line, that means that you will leave your mind open to think of new designs. If you don’tleave the line in there, you close the rug, then you’ve enclosed your mind, and you will have a hard time thinking of new designs. New techniques, new designs will be gone. And so this is the reason why the line should be there.” So it is the Spider Woman, this is the spiritual woman that we learned how to weave from.
Native American weavers of the past probably felt the same conflict as artists do today when the time comes to sell one’s creative work. Three or more years of a family’s life and energy were required to complete a woven rug. In addition to weaving, the creative and commercial commitment included tending the sheep to provide the wool, along with spinning the wool into yarn.
The spirit line custom is a significant reminder that upon completion “closure” is not the same thing as “enclosure.” When we consciously create a path outward to the world, we escape the entrapment of a closed mind and a closed heart.
Consider incorporating your own symbolic spirit line as a bridge of movement between commerce and creativity, daily tasks and dreams, hopes and heartaches.
By caring for our spirit, we create movement towards the future with greater flow of creativity, innovation, and freedom.
Donniece Smith is a multi-faceted artist with a twenty-five year background in graphic design. She creates original fine art in fiber , painting and mixed media. Thirteen Threads from the Wild Heart is Donniece’s thirteen month project launched in January 2011 to celebrate living her creative life much bigger and bolder upon her fiftieth birthday. You can join her ( and her muse Lulu Red ) explore the creative ties that bind our hearts and lives together through the metaphor of thread at http://www.thirteenthreadsfromthewildheart.com