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Is It Okay To Say “Navajo Ply”?

Earlier this week, some concern was expressed regarding whether or not the term “Navajo plying” was racially insensitive. I take this kind of thing very seriously. As far as I can tell, the answer is no.

As always, J. Smoov’s video remains the gold standard with regards to this type of discussion:

The first thing I considered was whether or not the term was derogatory (like “Indian giver” or “gypped”). But there don’t seem to be any negative connotations to “Navajo plying” (quite the contrary).

As you may know, the Navajo people have a long history of raising sheep, spinning wool, and weaving textiles. They created the Navajo-Churro sheep breed, and Navajo rugs and blankets are justifiably famous world-wide.

However, I was not able to officially corroborate the theory that the Navajo either invented or popularized this particular plying technique. I emailed a few experts I found online, but have not heard back. If you can provide a citation or the contact info for someone I can ask, I would appreciate it.

Thus, (pending further evidence) I think it’s safe to say that “Navajo plying” is just a descriptive term, like “Greek yogurt” or “Kenyan coffee.”

Navajo weaver

Navajo woman giving weaving demonstration, courtesy Flickr/Inkknife_2000

The second consideration was whether using the phrase “Navajo plying” is a form of cultural appropriation.

This is a more complicated matter, and cultural appropriation isn’t always a bad thing. Jezebel.com has a very readable and thoughtful article about where to draw the line and why. And here is a fun game you can play when discussing cultural appropriation.

Navajo weavers

Navajo women demonstrating techniques at 2008 International Sheep Dog Trials, courtesy Flickr/Knoxville Museum of Art

There have been several recent examples of cultural appropriation in the fashion world, which just can’t stop dressing up its models in traditional Native American garb. This is particularly loathsome because it takes one culture’s religious paraphernalia and uses it as set dressing in order to sell a product.

Honestly, nothing I can say about cultural appropriation is as cutting, accurate, or hilarious as this video by sketch comedy troupe The 1491s. It features “footage of 1491s member Ryan Red Corn dancing at the Santa Fe Indian Market interspersed with shots of visitors to the market and examples of appropriation of Native cultures, all set to Irving Berlin’s “I’m an Indian Too,” from Annie Get Your Gun.”

But I feel that the plying technique doesn’t qualify as cultural appropriation. For one thing, its use isn’t disrespectful or dehumanizing to the Navajo people or culture. For another thing, although spinning wool is central to traditional Navajo culture, I don’t think this technique has a large weight of religious or cultural significance, beyond its usefulness in plying yarn.

I think it’s safe to conclude that “Navajo plying” is neither derogatory nor a form of cultural appropriation. Given which, I can make a decent case for the premise that calling it “chain plying” is a form of whitewashing. After all, if this is a Navajo technique, then they deserve the credit for it, right?

Anyway, I tried it, it was a little clumsy at first, but it turned out really well.

Navajo plied yarn

And thanks as always for hearing me out on this.

8 comments to Is It Okay To Say “Navajo Ply”?

  • I appreciate you looking into the issue, and being so open about your research into it. :)

  • Slager

    Honestly, I think you’re safe.

  • Slager

    Also, we could almost have the same discussion on whether “faggoting” should be called “eyelet lace” or something.

  • Erika

    Heh! I thought about joking that “Next week: a dissertation on faggot stitch,” but I thought better of it.

    (The main problem with “faggot stitch” is that the word “faggot” hasn’t meant “a bundle of sticks” for quite some time.)

  • moiraeknittoo

    I love that you put so much though, effort and research into this. I’m utterly serious. Thank you for taking the time to write it all up!

  • two silver cats

    I second and third the opinion that you have put so much time and effort into this. When I read your last post and saw “Navajo plying,” it was not a term I was familiar with, but to me, there were three immediate things that came to mind: 1. I know that Erika does not mindlessly throw around insensitive terms for any reason. 2. I know NOTHING about spinning, so I had no idea what “Navajo spinning” was, but in the context of the writing it sounded like an authentic technique and you would not idly come up with the term yourself or repeat it from disreputable sources and 3., even if it turns out this is NOT an actual Navajo technique (which I doubt), the fact that, in your original post, you made sure that you capitalized the word. Somehow leaving a word in lowercase increases the cultural appropriation to me, the negative connotation if you will, whereas in capital letters it seems more respectful. Consider:

    I like greek yogurt.
    I like Greek yogurt.

    I like how your navajo plying came out.
    I like how your Navajo plying came out.

    (Of course, capitalizing words does not give a person free reign to use inappropriate words– for instance, saying that someone Gypped me would still not be okay, even though it looks better visually.)

    …and good point about the faggoting stitch.

  • Great post! I’m guilty of unknowingly or unthinkingly using inappropriate terminology sometimes. “Gypped” is one I’ll have to look up.

    Did you unply your yarn before Navajo plying it? The new “ply job” looks pretty darn good!

  • And the yarn looks great, too!
    Here’s the video that helped me finally learn how to Navajo ply: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmlwtojLXI8
    though it’s for the wheel rather than the spindle.
    For a really mind-blowing spindle technique, try this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eunrqj97lLU
    and the updated version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_861180&feature=iv&src_vid=Eunrqj97lLU&v=7Jc2tYkv_EU
    She’s Plying on the Fly. Seriously. I haven’t been brave enough to try it yet, myself…