Navajo Festival: ‘I let the fabric speak to me’

2014-07-27T05:00:00Z Navajo Festival: ‘I let the fabric speak to me’DIANDRA MARKGRAF Arts and Culture Reporter Arizona Daily Sun

Bonnie Woodie’s young grandson cried into the phone’s mouthpiece. He was promised ice cream.

“He likes to be by my feet wherever I go,” Woodie said in a recent phone interview with the Daily Sun.

She cares for the little one at her home in Ganado while his father studies engineering at the University of New Mexico. She also crafts high-fashion Native American couture.

Each pattern is stitched with purpose, every bead placed perfectly to reflect her ideas and what clients admire about her company BigWater Designs. She is known for her fine appliqué and technique, but especially her patented, hand-beaded buttons.

“I know I’m the only one doing that as far as in the Native American art market,” Woodie said. “I haven’t seen it anywhere else. I’ll appliqué a horse on the back of a jacket, and I’ll take that same design and bead it on a button.”

Intricate beadwork along the neck and hemlines of her hand-made ball gowns brought her as the first Native American to do a fashion show in Milan, Italy.

This weekend, she and her assistant and fellow designer Tyrell Begay will have models strut their contemporary Native fashions on the catwalk Saturday and Sunday as part of the 65th annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

Woodie always had a knack for fashion and designed her own clothes since high school.

“I’ve always wanted to be different and I know I am,” Woodie said. “I always feel like the way you dress tells people who you are. It’s an expression of oneself. That’s why my logo is [in Navajo] Nishlinigii ei’ Nishlii’. The English translation is I am who I am.”

She remembers being the first to wear high heels in the sixth grade.

For a night on the town or to a gala event, Woodie dresses to the nines with a designer jacket and a skirt with sandals. Understated, but she noted, “I wear everything chic.”

She flaunts her style instead of the jewelry with versatile Navajo necklaces or chunky silver cuffs.

Many businesspeople from far and wide enjoy the “simple elegance” of her technique and natural fiber selections. Woodie builds a rapport with far-off clients over the phone and learns their favorite color.

“I get a vibe and then I let the fabric speak to me,” she said.

She’s been approached to create large-scale lines, but insists she’s not ready because her process is so personal.

Woodie draws inspiration from her people, the landscape and her family. She spoke of her grandmother’s influence on her work.

“I sat at her feet growing up while she sewed and she wove,” she said. “She always told me whenever you make something it’s personal because it comes from your heart and your soul. When you take something from the earth you talk to it and you say, ‘Thank you.’”

This sense of respect, Woodie said, is why she shies from depicting ceremonial designs. Sometimes, though, she will use corn as an inspiration and create a simple design for an evening gown, cocktail dress or blazer. Woodie said she wants her clients to feel the wow-factor of her garments.

Woodie stretches the limits of her capabilities with blended silks, velvet and linen to make a refined statement. She will show off her newest pieces in the show. These dresses accent light and dark hues of mother-of-pearl with deep purples and blues of abalone shells.

Her quest for elegance forced her to rip the stitching from the back of a new dress.

“It didn’t look right to me,” she said. Her family told her to leave it, no one would know. Woodie just could not settle for anything less than perfection just as her grandson would not settle for any treat other than ice cream.

Watch Woodie’s BigWater Designs take a turn on the catwalk Saturday and a small trunk show Sunday at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Some pieces will also be for sale. There will be a special preview fashion show featuring some of Woodie’s and Tyrell’s pieces Friday evening at Twin Arrows Casino, exit 219 off the I-40, beginning at 6 p.m.

Diandra Markgraf can be reached at or 913-8670.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(1) Comments

  1. TimothyTwoToesLessRightFoot
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    TimothyTwoToesLessRightFoot - July 29, 2014 11:18 am
    Namaste Everyone, Mass Production? Who needs it, why not the traditional ways. Its better to have just a few basic necessities than having a household of goods that you never use or forgot you owned. I think people are tired of our modern World and would like a simple lifestyle. I am a Rainbow Warrior and I think we are all going to go back to a peasant way of life. Pilamaya, Timothy Two Toes Less Right Foot.
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