Denver Craftsman Practices A Rare Trade, Restoring Navajo Rugs

Nov 6, 2014

Rows of clear plastic containers, stuffed full of brightly colored yarns, line the wall in Ben Leroux's Denver studio, a rainbow of color stretching the length of the room and reaching from the floor to the ceiling.

"We try to organize it by color, but as you can see we're not very good at it," said Leroux.

This yarn wall is a key part of Leroux's business. The soft-spoken craftsman is one of just a handful of artisans expert in the art of restoring Navajo weavings.

One of the damaged rugs laid out on the floor in Ben Leroux's studio.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

The rug Leroux is currently working on is big and beautiful, with a bold geometric design and bright red, chocolate brown and walnut hues. A Navajo weaver wouldn't have had enough space in her house to craft a rug this large, so it was probably woven outside, or in a large room at a trading post, he said.

A flood in the owner's North Carolina cabin caused its colors to bleed; the red turned nearby parts of the weaving pink. The edges of the rug have also seen better days, as decades of footsteps took their toll.

"Removing color run, you have to hand paint a chemical on there to bleed it out. You don't want to get it on the other colors or else you'll bleach out the other colors. You have to go through every single area and do it by hand. That's a whole process," he said.

Pulling out another rug in need of repair, Leroux shows where it needs some TLC.

"Somewhere along the line, this corner was damaged, you can see how the warps were either chewed or a vacuum cleaner got the rug, so that's going to have to be repaired. This one also suffered from moth damage."

The holes left by moths or other damage require re-weaving. To do this, Leroux must match yarn colors exactly – that's where the wall comes in.

Ben Leroux shows the corner of a damaged Navajo rug.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Even within one color the variations can be huge, said Leroux. His yarn wall has about 30 boxes full of red yarn, all different hues.

"There's no one shade of red. There's thousands. Then add sun fading, stains, and you're having to match a whole bunch of different things."

A box of red yarn, all slightly different colors.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Leroux, a dark-haired man with an easygoing manner, has mapped in his mind a detailed history of Navajo weaving. He knows if a rug was created in a period where natural dyes were used versus acid dyes. Based on design or technique he can tell which trading post or region it probably came from, which helps him understand how to repair it.

The artisan dyes his own yarn, in his kitchen, trying to find the perfect match. It's not always an easy process.

"I've put in a lot of wool that I've had to take out at times. I put in a few rows, it gets packed, then gets real dark, changes to a pinkish tint, or doesn't work so you have to pull that out and start back over again."

When parts of a textile need to be woven again, Leroux pulls out a wooden frame and uses that to stabilize the area, stretching it taut.

"And so that gives the rug tension, like it would have been on the loom originally," he said.

Leroux has been restoring weavings for both private individuals and museum collections like the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History since 1995, when he bought the restoration business from his mentor Bob Morgan.

In that time, he's seen all kinds of damage. Dogs pee on the rugs. Rocking chairs wear them out. Embers from fireplaces burn them. Moths eat them. Dirt stains them.

One of the first steps in restoring a rug is cleaning it. Before cleaning a rug, it could appear to be many shades darker than it actually is. If he cleaned it after doing a repair, the colors Leroux used might not match.

Ben Leroux shows how he stretches a rug over a wooden frame, getting the damaged part taut, as if it were on a loom.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Morgan, who learned how to weave rugs when he lived on the Navajo Nation reservation, said Leroux has the right personality for the job.

"He has, really, a love of textiles," said Morgan. "It takes an investment in time and energy to keep that level of enthusiasm. And he has it."

Jackson Clark, the owner of Toh-Atin gallery in Durango, Colorado, specializes in southwestern textiles. Leroux can repair just about any Navajo weaving, he said, and cares for them in a way that makes his work stand out. He can also focus in the concentrated way that is necessary for such work, said Clark.

"Actually restoring a weaving is much more difficult than doing the weaving in the first place," said Clark.

Tools of the trade: tiny pliers, scissors, blunt-ended needles and a spindle.
Credit Stephanie Paige Ogburn / KUNC

Leroux said one of his favorite parts of the entire process is hearing the stories of the textiles from people who have had them in their families for decades, who maybe grew up running their Hot Wheel cars along the lines of the design, and now want the rug, and those memories, to last for their children.

"It's great to have a rug that comes in all beaten up like this and see the smile on people's faces whenever they get it back," Leroux said.

Leroux enjoys having textiles in his studio, and often hangs or lays his projects out around the studio. When owners come and take the textile back, it's kind of like letting a grandchild go back to his parents, he said.

You enjoy the visit, while it lasts. And then you move on.

**Note: An exhibition of Navajo weavings will be on display at The Denver Post Building Saturday, Nov. 10, from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., in conjunction with a fundraising auction for the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History. Ben Leroux will also be on hand to discuss rug repair.