Navajo Wool, Diné Stories

From traditional Navajo-Churro wool to finewool fleeces prized by industry, sheep and yarn are inseparable from the Diné lifeway.

Anne Merrow Sep 18, 2023 - 3 min read

Navajo Wool, Diné Stories Primary Image

For the Diné people, sheep are a gift that has touched the community throughout time. Photo by Nikyle Begay

“Take care of the sheep, and the sheep will take care of you.” So said Nikyle Begay’s grandmother about their Navajo-Churro sheep, a resilient breed well suited to independent life in the Southwest. With their variety of colors and dual coats, these sheep offer the versatility that the community has prized over time for fiber and food as well as a spiritual connection to ancestors.

Some Diné shepherds are dedicated to preserving Navajo-Churro sheep from extermination through government policies and genetic dilution from finer-wooled breeds. (Commonly known as Navajo, Diné is the traditional name chosen by the people to refer to themselves.)

Diné shepherds may also raise breeds known for uniform white color and fineness, the traits generally valued by larger wool pools and buyers for yarn companies. Fleece from flocks of Columbia, Rambouillet, and crosses find their way into wool yarns milled in the United States and elsewhere. Yarn companies such as Peace Fleece specifically source wool from the Navajo Nation.

For weaving and knitting work, industrially produced yarns find their way onto the looms and needles of many Diné textile artists as they have throughout the world. From the Germantown wool yarns produced through the mid-twentieth century to synthetic yarns available from big-box stores, modern textile needs may call for nontraditional wool sources. But whatever the source of a skein of yarn, the role of sheep and wool in traditional culture remains so important that it is the focus of an annual festival, the Sheep Is Life Celebration.

A Navajo-Churro sheep relaxes under the skilled hands of a shearer. Note the traditional wool shears. Photo by Nikyle Begay

The Diné people are best known for their weaving, but as Nikyle Begay shares in “Our Grandfathers’ Knitting Needles”, knitting plays an important role in some ceremonial observations.

Resources to Learn More about Navajo-Churro Sheep and Diné Shepherds

The Rainbow Fiber Co-op purchases Diné-grown Navajo-Churro wool at a fair price, mills it into yarn and rovings for spinning, dyes the yarn, and makes it available for sale. The co-op produces yarn in a range of natural colors. Learn more about the co-op.

We spoke with Rainbow Fiber Co-op founder Nikyle Begay for the Long Thread Podcast in 2022. Read the full transcript of our interview.

For an overview of Navajo-Churro sheep and their role in Diné culture, check out “The Diné, Their Sheep, and a Tale of Survival.’

To learn about spinning on a Navajo spindle from a Diné elder, see “Traditional Spinning on a Navajo Spindle.”