Arts of Native America
How to Care for Navajo Weavings

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The Care of Navajo Rugs and Weavings

General Comments

The care of American Indian textiles is vital to their longevity, vitality, and utility. To realize their maximum life and value, initial consideration should be give to what went into the original manufacture, the basic material, dyestuff, technique , and any other factors which would affect longevity. While the claim is often made that Navajo weavings are not fragile, they are not eternal and require care. The fact that the native weaver formerly buried a finished rug in damp sand to cleanse it wholly disregards more contemporary knowledge of better ways by which to achieve that end. 

Proper Display

No native weave should be exposed to direct sunlight for any length of time; even the best quality dye will retreat from such an insult. Vegetal dyes fade quickly upon exposure to any light, and their lifetime brilliance depends completely upon the care given to the original preparation; this will vary from weaver to weaver. It is a heartbreak to see an old blanket which has been left on the floor or wall and without attention for many years. One sees a fine weave but dull tones; upon turning the textile over, the explosion of original color still intact only emphasizes what has been lost through neglect. 

Textiles used on the floor should always have a pad placed underneath. This not only prevents slipping but absorbs much of the shock of walking, allowing the threads to move more gently under the pressure. A floor covering ought to be rotated regularly, not only to balance the areas exposed to frequent travel but to also allow the textile to adjust under use. Wool expands and shrinks, and rotation helps balance this regular movement within the fabric. Often Navajo textiles are observed to curl at the corners; usually this is due to a tightly woven rug expanding under differing humidity or temperature conditions. To remedy this, one can simply untie the corner ties (note carefully the original way in which they were tied), then work the binding cord back towards the centers slightly to release the accumulated tension, and re-tie in the original knot. 

Textiles displayed in a well-lit room using incandescent or fluorescent light sill lose their original brilliance, just as those exposed to sunlight. The illumination should be soft, indirect, and preferably one which has the ultra-violet rays filtered out to insure longer color life. When hanging such textiles, never use a few nails pounded in the wall as supports. Completely aside from the fact that nails rust, this method will cause the textile to sag in time, giving an unsightly undulating appearance which cannot be removed - the fibers will have stretched beyond recovery. 

Proper hanging involves the use of a strong horizontal member, either a metal rod or wooden dowel to which the textile is fastened regularly with small spacing between the fastening threads. This should be arranged in the same manner as the original weave: by the warp threads. A further “safety net” can sometimes be introduced by applying a second or third row of supporting threads perpendicular to the warp, placed strategically along the body of the rug and fastened in turn to a vertical support. This is particularly helpful with a very heavy-weave textile. But perhaps the most ingenious method has been recently developed by the use of plastic material which has thousands of microscopic hooks applied to the surface of a tape. When two such tapes are pressed together, these hooks interlock and provide a strong bind. By sewing one tape to the textile and fastening the other to a wall or flat slat, the textile can readily be supported throughout the top edge, thereby removing any possible damage from tension at a single point. 

Proper Cleaning

To clean native textiles, one should never wash them. Any dye will yield to water in time, and once the color bleeds it cannot be removed; this is particularly true of the red colors. Excepting for very old, partially damaged textiles, most modern weaves can be vacuumed to remove dirt. Even the use of a modern beater-brush implement is safe, providing care is taken in its application. One should remember to always vacuum both sides of the weave. To remove stains, the safest treatment is dry cleaning at the hands of a skilled operator. While this will remove the lanolin naturally present in wool, most modern dry-cleaning also includes the replacing of the lanolin if requested. This is helpful because the presence of lanolin is one of the reasons why wool wears so well - but is also one of the reasons why insects and rodents sometimes attack wool textiles. 

Rugs, particularly, should never be “snapped” or whipped to clean dirt from them; such treatment breaks the threads and will result in a short time in breaks or holes in the rug. A gentle shaking will loosen any large amount of sand or dirt, but this should be done sparingly. Remember that, after all, you are handling an object made up of thousands of pieces which have been patiently fit together - the more you shake or snap it, the more you tend to separate these pieces back into their original form. 

Spills or stains present serious problems and require immediate attention if they are to be successfully removed. Water or any other substance should be blotted up and removed promptly but without rough treatment - you are simply applying first aid to take away the majority of the damage. As soon as possible the rug should be taken to a competent dry-cleaner, who has an array of magic potions available for the correct handling of such stains. In this, as in any restoration of health, the curing treatment can be worse than the ailment, so one should know a skilled practitioner who has had experience with the type of weaving affected. Just any old “textile doctor” may not prove suitable. 

Long Term Storage

In storing textiles, rugs, or other large-sized weavings, these should never be folded and piled one upon the other. This simply strains the fibers; in time they will stretch and result in creases which cannot be removed. Indeed, it may completely break the threads, again starting the holes which eventually ruin any good weave. It is preferable to roll the textiles loosely upon a cylinder or large-sized roller and store them in a cool, dry place. These rolled-up textiles should be supported by end hooks or fasteners to minimize weight upon the textile itself. Bear in mind that cardboard rollers often contain acid in their manufacture, which can in time affect the textile. 

Cotton itself presents minimal insect vulnerability, but wool is a delicacy for moths and a good repellent or spray should be regularly applied to storage areas; those textiles which are displayed on the wall should be given a moth-spray treatment on both sides; frequently the exposed surface is treated, and the neglected underside provides a hidden banquet for moth larvae. Whenever new textiles are acquired, they should also be carefully treated. Many fine collections have been ruined by the thoughtless addition of an untreated example which quickly contaminates all of the earlier well-cared for textiles. 

Another problem often overlooked is the interaction of chemicals in storage. It should be realized that many dyestuffs have a chemical base which over the years can have a severe interaction, resulting in the deterioration of the fibers. Many ancient textiles show this effect clearly; black dyes often contain iron which upon oxidization disintegrates to a point where only a vacant space is left to indicate the original design. 

The Final Word

Only regular attention to the exposure of textiles to abuse can prevent their eventual loss. Chairs carelessly placed upon rugs, with their movement of such legs, tables, casters, or contact supporters can have only one result. The continual abuse, friction, exposure, and pounding of these hand-woven textiles will yield the owner only what he (she) deserves. With extremely fragile or valuable textiles, often the best remedy is to do nothing at all. Fabric can stand just so much handling - and to attempt the restoration, cleaning, or treatment of a weave without adequate training exposes that piece to future re-treating, sometimes to a degree where the skilled technician is helpless to provide the solution. 

Taking such a precious object to a competent conservator at a local museum or institute dedicated to art conservation is by far the best answer to such needs. There are many such institutions throughout the country; in particular, the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. has been the most active in this particular area of preservation.