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Press: Los Angeles Times Design Woven Into The Western Spirit - Jan 2004


Prices of Navajo rugs have soared in recent years, but to collectors, the value isn’t measured in dollars.

 By Janet Eastman, Times Staff Writer : Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles, CA – January 22, 2004: Entertainment lawyer Lawrence Rose spends his days fighting for his clients, but 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,” says Rose from his Adobe Revival house, which overlooks Beverly Hills. “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, and 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, while the head of Design Within Reach, a contemporary furniture chain, displays his collection in a minimalist house outside Sonoma.

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

Sales of new rugs have jumped about 15% a year since the Southwestern design boom in the 1980s, rug experts say. The price for a 4-by-6-foot new rug, which may 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 sold a year before.

Heating up interest and making the rugs easier to find outside art galleries, museum gift shops, craft fairs and auctions are websites. 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 in 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 their 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 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 Native Americans, Mexicans and U.S. traders. Larger blankets were later 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 on 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 across 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 lanolin left 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 or the rug to be free.

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.

Hanging in Rose’s master bath is a brown rug in the Teec Nos Pos style, with a black border holding arrows and bars outlined in white. The desert colors and symmetrical lines go well with a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired leaded glass window, patterned brown-and-black tile and smooth, earth-toned walls.

The weaving on his entryway wall shows Yei-be-cheis performing a Night Way ceremony, in which illness is driven away over nine nights. Some 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 says. “I appreciate the colors, design and craftsmanship, but there’s only so much space.”

Symbolic figures

The designs in Navajo rugs are sometimes simply for artistic expression, but many of them have meaning to Native American culture or to a specific region or artisan. A guide to some of the symbols:

Arrow: Movement of the sun or a direction.

Cross: Stars. With boxes, Spider Woman, a deity who taught Navajos weaving.

Diagonal lines: Feathers.

Hook: Borrowed from Asian design.

Sacred plants: Corn, tobacco, beans, squash.

Sand-painting designs: Inspired by dry paintings made of colored sand for healing ceremonies.

Storm pattern: Center box (the universe) connected by zigzagging lines (lightning bolts) to boxes representing mountains that guard the Navajo Nation – Blanca Peak (east), Mt. Taylor (south), the San Francisco Peaks (west) and Mt. Hesperus (north).

Terraced steps: Cloud or mountain.

Tree of Life: Birds (messengers) on a cornstalk (life) growing from a medicine basket (healing) to depict creation.

Triangles: Dynamism, vitality or fertility. With arrows, the Monster Slayer Twins, who used lightning bolts given by their father, the sun, to turn enemies into stone.

Whirling logs: Everything positive – the four seasons, four directions, four winds.

Yei rectangular figures facing forward: Sacred deities. Round heads are male, square heads female.

Yei-be-chei figures: Deities’ protective grandparents or human representatives, often in profile.