Navajo blankets collected by Greenwich heiress go on display for the first time

GREENWICH — By the time she was 22, Margaret Cranford had seen the grand capitals of Europe, the antiquities of Greece and the exotic delights of Egypt.

But it was the deceptively simple beauty of the textiles she encountered on her 1930s collecting trips to the American Southwest that held the Greenwich heiress’s passion.

Examples of the fine woven wares she treasured will be on view in “A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions,” a new exhibition opening Aug. 18 at the Bruce Museum. Featuring about a dozen textiles Cranford donated to the museum, as well as other pieces from the Bruce’s Native American ethnographic collection, the exhibition traces Navajo weaving from around 1880 to the mid-20th century.

Some of the items that will be on display in the Bantle Lecture Gallery have never been publicly exhibited and represent only a portion of the more than 700 pieces Cranford donated to the museum before her death in 1974.

“She was a very well-educated buyer,” said Kirsten Reinhardt, the museum registrar who curated the exhibition. “She knew exactly what she was doing and, obviously, money was no object. I’ve become somewhat fascinated by her.”

Born in 1887, Cranford was the eldest of three daughters of Walter and Annee Cranford. Her father owned Cranford & Co., a successful construction company that won several municipal projects across New York City. He left his mark on his native borough by donating the rose garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

While the family lived in Brooklyn, they summered in Greenwich, eventually moving to town when Margaret was a young adult.

Though not much has been published about Cranford, her letters tell of her love of the outdoors and adventure. She enjoyed fishing, camping, canoeing and horseback riding, often with her father.

“I don’t know if she was the son he never had,” Reinhardt said.

Never married, Cranford lived with her parents for most of her life. Her father died in the 1930s, and about a year after her mother died in 1960, she began donating some of her vast collections to the Bruce Museum, where she was a member and longtime board member, Reinhardt said.

The pieces in the upcoming exhibition speak to Cranford’s many trips to the Southwest, often in the company of Fred Harvey and his family. Harvey, who made his fortune developing the Harvey House lunch rooms, souvenir shops and lodges along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railway line, was known for bringing well-to-do tourists into Native American territory in search of artisan wares and jewelry.

Down-to-earth and personable, Cranford made friends among the Hopi and Navajo people and had a deep interest in their work. She collected baskets, jewelry, pottery and, most notably, rugs and other textiles.

The Navajo rugs that will be displayed are distinctive because their “warp,” the vertical strings on a loom, is one continuous piece of wool thread. Once the warp is set on the loom, the size of the rug cannot be altered, so the weavers, mostly women, had to carefully plan their work to fit the allotted space without conventional patterns to guide them.

“There’s nothing on paper,” Reinhardt said.

While the Hopi people who lived in the Southwest first used cotton to craft their textiles, the Navajo works incorporated wool from sheep introduced into the region by the Spanish in the mid-1500s, Reinhardt said. The finished products were durable and waterproof, a boon for these nomadic people.

In fact, one of the first things they made were saddle blankets to protect their horses from the elements. They traded their blankets as far north as the Great Plains.

“Wherever the horse went, the blanket went, too,” Reinhardt said.

Pieces in the exhibition include a 1930s saddle blanket with a traditional storm pattern, a young person’s serape believed to have been woven between 1880 and 1890 and an early 20th-century “pictorial” piece featuring a whimsical bird perched on a tall stalk of corn. Also included is a vibrant red “eye dazzler” work gifted by Rita Henderson, who has been a docent at the museum for about 30 years.

Reinhardt hopes the exhibition will give some insights into both the creativity of Navajo weavers and Cranford’s keen eye for quality.

“We hope our guests find meaning in her dedication to identifying and preserving Native American traditions,” she said.

“A Continuous Thread: Navajo Weaving Traditions” runs through Nov. 25 at the Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive. It is supported by The Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund, with additional support from the Connecticut Office of the Arts. For more information, visit