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Bohemian Tango Cordial Set

Caring for Antique Navajo Rugs
by Bob Brooke


Even relatively minor damages or stains on Navajo rugs may reduce their market value by 80 percent compared to an identical rug in perfect condition. So itís important to care for them correctly.

A world of difference exists between the extremes of "repairs" and "restoration."
"Repair" is the stabilization of a textile with any technique and material which prevents further deterioration. "Restoration," on the other hand, is any state of the art technique which renews a textile to its original appearance.

For example, very good repairs may surpass very poor restorations in quality. Itís the craftperson that matters. Reputation and history are everything in the field of textile conservation. A rug could be further damaged or diminished in value in the hands of an incompetent cleaning or restoration person.

The Origins of Navajo Rug Weaving
Navajo blankets have been woven only since the 17th century. The Navajos learned weaving techniques from the Pueblo Indians beginning with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 to 1692 when the Pueblo tribes organized to defeat their Hispanic oppressors. This exchange of weaving knowledge occurred when some Pueblo Indians sought refuge with their Navajo neighbors. The Pueblo weaving tradition descended from their ancestors, the Anasazi.

The earliest Anasazi textile fragments have been excavated from 2nd-century sites in on the Grand Gulch of southeast Utah. These fragments indicated that the Anasazi used cotton, prior to the introduction of sheep into the Southwest by the Spaniards, and only natural browns, beige, black, and gray to color them.

Navajo rugs have been woven only since the mid-19th century when Anglo and Hispanic traders developed this craft for East Coast markets. These first Navajo rugs are a heftier version of their blankets. They wove designs provided by early trading post proprietors to suit this market. In fact, the proprietors often copied designs from the geometric Caucasian Oriental rugs that were popular at the time.

Unfortunately, the Navajo didnít systematize their rug craft to obtain consistently high quality wools or yarns. Pioneer settlers and the U.S. Army often disrupted their culture. The breeds of sheep they raised varied and pastures constantly suffered from overgrazing, so the wool supply was erratic and its quality suffered. In addition, there were fewer Navajo weavers compared to Oriental ones, and they occupied a limited area in the Southwest.

Homespun yarns vary in tightness of spin. The Navajo cleaned and combed their wool using a variety of methods so characteristics from batch to batch were unpredictable: To further complicate matters, they also used various commercial yarns. The most well-known materials are Bayeta (Hispanic), Saxony (commercially yarns produced in Germany) Germantown (commercial yarns produced near Philadelphia). So reproducing these yarns presents a challenge for the Navajo rug restorer, who often relies on fragments of these textiles which they can cannibalize for their yarns.

Cleaning Navajo Rugs
Bled dyes, especially the reds, are a common problem with Navajo rugs: These are aniline dyes, such as the Rit brand dyes, and arenít usually colorfast. Other dyes can also bleed. Unlike most good quality Oriental rugs, a red Navajo rug cannot simply be washed with a mild soap out on the driveway using a hose since the red will bleed to pink. If none of the wools used in a Navajo rug are dyed wools, it can be washed. Navajo rugs like these are fairly common.

However, most blacks have been over dyed for consistent color. A test should be tried on a small area first, gently scrubbing the rug in the direction of the spin and weave. Itís important not to unravel or unbraid these soft yarns. After copious rinsing, the rug should be wet vacuumed until nearly dry.

Since Navajo chemical dye technology isnít as sophisticated as Oriental chemical dye technology, itís frankly best to leave the cleaning of a Navajo rug to a professional who has worked with them before. Always ask if the company has cleaned Navajo rugs before arranging to leave one with them. While Oriental rug dealerships often employ repair persons and a few also deal with Navajo rugs, some of the technology does translate between Oriental and Navajo. But it pays to be sure.

Navajo rugs, which also have problems with chewing gum, molds which turn white wools dirty gray, food stains which can grow molds which in turn corrode fibers, and pet urine stains, should also be trusted to an experienced professional. Gum and urine are difficult to remove without ruining the colors or fibers during the cleaning process.

Since Navajo rug values are relatively high, itís important to find a qualified Navajo rug cleaner.

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