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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America



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Navajo Rugs' Appeal Transcends Time and Style


by Janet Eastman, Los Angeles Times


credits: photo: Navajo rugs can show up anywhere: This one hangs on a bathroom wall. photo by Vince Compagnone - The Los Angles Times


Navajo rugs can show up anywhere: This one hangs on a bathroom wall. photo by  Vince Compagnone - The Los Angles TimesEntertainment lawyer Lawrence Rose spends his days fighting for his clients, and at night he retreats home to be watched over by nine dancing Yei-be-cheis. The figures, woven into a Navajo rug in the entryway, represent the protective grandparents of Native American gods.

"There's a calming quality about the Southwest style and a spirit to Navajo rugs," said Rose from his Adobe Revival house, which overlooks Beverly Hills, Calif. "People in my business need a peaceful place to inhabit, a vacation house in the city. Once I'm here, I can forget what happens outside."

That's the power of Navajo rugs, a 300-year-old art form inspired by nature and the supernatural, created one line at a time by weavers using upright looms.

With the rugs' ordered patterns of zigzags, arrows and hooks in burnt red, cream and black, they capture attention in every home, from rough-hewn cabins and Arts and Crafts bungalows to ranch styles and white-walled moderns. Ralph Lauren, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford have Navajo rugs in their Great Plains estates.

The head of Design Within Reach, a contemporary furniture chain, displays his collection in a minimalist house outside Sonoma, Calif.

"People are interested in the rugs' decorative qualities, aesthetic value and emotional connection to the life and traditions of a distinct and fascinating culture," said David Roche, Sotheby's specialist in American Indian art. "There's an excitement to these textiles and a universal quality."

Sales are up
Sales of new rugs have jumped about 15 percent a year since the Southwestern design boom in the 1980s, rug experts say. The price of a 4- by 6-foot new rug, which might take months to weave, starts at a few thousand dollars.

The value of old rugs has zoomed, too. A diamond-patterned Navajo weaving from the 19th century sold to a private collector at a Sotheby's auction for $401,000 three years ago, eight times more than the highest bidder paid for a comparable one a year before.

Web sites are heating up interest and making the rugs easier to find outside art galleries, museum gift shops, craft fairs and auctions. Rose bought his rugs through, which is run by Steve Getzwiller, a leader in preserving traditional Navajo weaving. Getzwiller's gallery is on his Nizhoni Ranch near Sonoita, Ariz., southeast of Tucson. Clients who can't visit in person are e-mailed images of rugs. They select the ones they want delivered to their home, where they make a final decision.

Getzwiller works only with weavers on the Navajo reservation who use soft wool from Churro sheep that is then naturally dyed, a laborious process that hadn't been used in this area for a century until Getzwiller helped reintroduce it.

The Spanish brought herds of Churro sheep to the Southwest in the 1500s, and Navajos used the long, straight wool fibers to make tightly woven, water-resistant saddle and shoulder blankets prized by other American Indians, Mexicans and U.S. traders. Larger blankets later were used as rugs.

Dyes for yarn were created by boiling plants and rocks. Secret recipes to make brownish reds from prickly pear cactus fruit, juniper root and red rock were passed from mother to daughter. Some wool was left undyed to make creamy white, light brown, gray or black backgrounds. Black wool comes from a lamb's first shearing, before the wool is bleached by the sun.

In the early 1900s, tourists hopped on trains headed to reservations in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and took home rugs as souvenirs. To keep up with the demand, profit-minded trading post owners gave weavers synthetic dyes and commercially processed yarns that cut down on time and expense.

Today, Navajo rugs made the traditional way with hand-spun wool are valued more than quickly made imitations because they have a smoother texture and are heavier because of the residual lanolin in the wool. Some of the finest rugs are considered tapestries because they have more than 80 threads per inch, compared with a good-quality rug with 30 threads per inch or a cheap knockoff with six per inch.

Well-made rugs lie flat without puckering, have straight edges and corners and, when folded, have a balanced pattern. They aren't exactly uniform, however, because they're not machine-made. Some weavers even add imperfections. A break in the border could be a "spirit line," a tiny line of yarn that is said to allow the spirit of the artisan of the rug to be free.

Regional styles
Over the years, regions on the Navajo reservation developed distinct styles. The Two Grey Hills area in New Mexico is known for its complex geometrical designs woven from undyed black, gray and brown wool. Rugs from Teec Nos Pos in Arizona have bold borders, and those from Ganado, Ariz., have red backgrounds.

The weaving on Rose's entryway wall shows Yei-be-cheis performing a Night Way ceremony, in which illness is driven away over nine nights. Some people believe rugs depicting sacred ceremonies shouldn't be walked on. Rose has a practical reason for keeping his rugs off the floor: His four dogs "would ruin anything in two seconds."

Rose's rugs also are draped over furniture. There is one with a storm pattern design on a couch in the den, as well as a gray, blue and brown weaving on top of a dresser in the master bedroom.

"I wish I had more places to put the rugs," Rose said. "I appreciate the colors, design and craftsmanship, but there's only so much space."

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