Here are some things to consider when you’re considering a Navajo textile:
- Does it lie flat on the floor?
- Is the design balanced?
- Any warps showing, especially at the ends?
- Fold the rug in half. Does the center of the design fall in the center of the rug? Are both ends the same width?
- How complex is the pattern?
- Look at the edges. Are they reasonably straight?
- Is the weaving even, are the lines crisp, are the stripes straight? How many rows per inch are there? This is an indicator of how much time the weaver had to spend working on the piece.
- Is the rug handspun? Handspun rugs are quite rare today, because it will just about quadruple the time it takes to make a rug and most collectors won’t pay a premium for it. If the weaver tells you it is handspun, it may be handspun or respun, which for many weavers is an equivalent process. If the handspun claim is important to you, make the dealer put it in writing and get an expert to take a look at the rug. If you are dealing with the people on my list, don’t worry. They know who produced the rug, and the circumstances under which it was woven.
All of these factors go into the total value of the piece but don’t discount your personal taste. There are some rugs that just “talk” to you.
I encourage people to look at the price per square foot as a way to provide you with a basis to make a decision between pieces. Two Grey Hills tapestries have the highest price per square foot, and Gallup throws are probably the lowest on a price per square footage basis, yet both are typically handspun and handcarded. The difference is that the threadcount in Two Grey Hills tapestries is 80-110 rows per inch, the designs are quite complex, and the weavers are often well known. Gallup thows have a thread count of about 12-16 rows per inch, simple designs, quick finishing methods, and are woven by unknown weavers.
If you are interested in acquiring older rugs, there are some other considerations that you’ll need to keep in mind. Consider the source. How much do you know about the history of the rug? Being well acquainted with the current owner is very different from finding a rug in a yard sale or on Ebay. What claims are being made about the rug? You’ll need to learn to evaulate rugs in line with your knowledge of the history of Navajo textiles.
- Claim: “This Two Grey Hills was made in 1880.” Fact: Two Grey Hills and other regional bordered designs (in fact regional designs themselves) started after 1890. Fact: Before the 1890’s Navajo’s produced clothing, household and ranch items and wearing blankets exclusively. Nothing that is an out and out rug is older than that.
- Claim: This Chief Blanket is just like the one that appraised for $500,000 on the Antiques Roadshow. Fact: If it really were just like that blanket, the seller wouldn’t have it on Ebay. I actually saw an Ebay item that was woven in Mexico with that claim.
Older rugs may be evaluated using many of the same criteria that you would for a new rug, but remember that the conditions that many older rugs were woven under were truly difficult and standards today are very high. Older rugs are more likely to be made with handspun, and the designs are more personal. Uneven carding, faded dyes, and idiosyncratic designs are more common in older rugs. Old Navajo rugs in an antique store always seem to be $1200 (once the origin of the rug has been pointed out). If you are paying a high price for something you’re not sure of, get a second opinion.
Look for moth and other insect damage in older pieces. You certainly want to eliminate any active insect infestations before bringing a rug into your home. See the care section for information on eliminating insects. If a textile is damaged, you may want to consider repairing it. There are two schools of thought on this. One, of course, is to preserve the textile in good condition. Many traditional Navajos believe that the rug, like all things, has a life of its own, and the textile should live that life and be allowed to decay naturally. There’s a point where a rug is just beyond repairs that make any economic sense, but that point differs for each person and for rugs that have a sentimental value. Rugs, like people, can have better and longer lives with competent care and repair. You can read more about repairs at Weaving in Beauty’s Navajo Rug Clinic site.
Old Navajo textiles can be a true bargain. Lots of people don’t recognize their value, and I have even met a couple of people who have had whole collections literally given to them. Perhaps the rugs seek out people who will take good care of them!