Navajo master weavers Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete talk shop
A lot of very talented weavers have come out of the Navajo Nation, including a pair of master weaver siblings and fifth-generation sisters from Two Grey Hills — Barbara Teller Ornelas and Lynda Teller Pete.
Following in the footsteps of their mother Ruth, whose rugs were so prized that collectors often purchased them right off the loom, the girls — Tabaaha (Water Edge Clan) and born for the To’aheedliini (Two Waters Flow Together Clan) — picked up the legacy through observation and training that has been going on in the family with grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and cousins producing award-winning rugs.
Because of their water-connected backgrounds, Lynda jokes that, “Some people don’t refer to us as weavers, but mermaids.”
As children, their maternal grandmother, Susie Tom, and parental grandmother, Nellie Peshlakai Teller, made sure their offspring learned the art and intricacies of weaving, the basics like respecting the loom, preparing the wool via shearing, carding, and spinning, and paying attention to design elements.
The duo is known today for their traditional Two Grey Hills patterns identified by a double-diamond layout, intricate geometric design that uses natural-colored, hard-carded, and hand-spun wool with a high weft count.
With similar lives and similar stories, the sisters have spent the last two years combining their historical remembrances into a book — Spider Women’s Children: Navajo Weavers Today (Thrums Books 2018) — a collection of 20 profiles of Navajo weavers from ages 16 to 88, intimate views that explore the cultural traditions, authentic voices, in-depth perspectives, and treasured kinships of those who weave beauty and tradition.
From an early age, the sisters had instilled in them that beauty and harmony should be woven into every rug. As the youngest weaver in the family, Lynda was raised in an atmosphere of creativity that viewed weaving as a way of life and lessons on how to weave were mandatory. Although probably not necessary in her case as she won her first weaving award at age 12. By the time she was attending college at Arizona State University, she was selling her hand-made creations to pay for books and tuition.
Now, teachers of Navajo weaving, the siblings share their families rich heritage through stories of generations of weavers and the individual stories that are told by each tapestry imbued with hope, tears, dreams, and laughter.
“Weaving keeps my family together, it’s our lifeline,” says Barbara, who notes: “Two Grey Hills is the trading post where my father (Sam) worked and I literally grew up at the store.” Although her accomplishments are many and renowned, the tone of her biography is modest, as in her humble beginning — “Barbara’s premature entry into the world took place in the shadow of a tree on a family outing to gather pinion nuts.”
Approaching five decades of producing product, the spirit still moves her, aided occasionally by a financial windfall. One of her favorite stories involves what she calls ‘The Big Rug,’ a frequent Best of Show winner that took her four years to weave to her satisfaction.
Displayed at a show, a collector from Houston admired the 5-foot-wide and nearly 9-foot-long masterpiece and decided that price was no object, handing over a check for $60,000 in 1987 dollars (which would be about $183,000 in today’s dollars.) And while excited by the sale to the point of near cardiac failure, she did calculate that the 2,321 hours invested in the project resulted in a bottom-line-net of $8.83 an hour starting with sheep shearing to the actual sale.
Conversely, during a leaner time, she traded one weaving with her orthodontist for braces for her son’s teeth.
Now living and weaving in Tucson, she sings sacred songs at her workshop loom, a space filled with trinkets, mostly sheep figurines that honor her traditional Navajo background. Interestingly, her paternal grandmother predicted years ago —‘You are going to travel the world and tell the Navajo weaver’s story.’ The traveling, upwards of 300 days a year, is slowing down now, but she remains a traditionalist, satisfied she has fulfilled her grandmother’s dreams for her as well as passing along the art by teaching her own children, Sierra and Michael, how to weave according to Ho’zho, the Navajo concept of balance and beauty.
“From the time weaving began until today, it tells the history of our people, so that tradition should be learned and maintained in order to ensure it will be here forever. When you weave, always make it your best effort, never cut corners. Each creation is the latest iteration of an ancient art form and you can’t rest on past laurels because you’re only as good as the last rug you made.”