Over nearly four decades, Jim and Ursula Stilley have cleaned and restored thousands of Navajo and Oriental rugs from all over the world at their small shop in Tucson.
Now, the Stilleys are closing their shop, Navajo Rug Repair Co., to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.
At least, Ursula’s talented fingers will get a rest — Jim will keep providing rug appraisals for now.
The Stilleys founded the business in 1978 as Oriental Rug Repair Co., adapting techniques of repairing Oriental rugs to Navajo weavings. Navajo rugs quickly became the majority of the company’s restoration and cleaning business, prompting the couple to add and later mostly use the name Navajo Rug Repair.
“I have mixed feelings, because this has been our life for all these decades,” said Jim Stilley, 62. “I think of the many historical Navajo weavings that we have restored. I’ll miss that.”
While both the Stilleys learned to repair and restore rugs, Ursula has been the main worker at the repair loom.
And that exacting work takes its toll over the years, she says, adding she’s looking forward to retirement.
“I’m ready. It’s a lot of years, a lot of weaving,” she said, noting that she had surgery to fix carpal-tunnel problems in both wrists about five years ago.
Unable to find a buyer for the business, the Stilleys plan to sell off their equipment, tools and what they believe is the largest variety of wool yarns used for restoration in the nation.
In addition, they will be selling about 140 Navajo rugs, numerous books and other items beginning Feb. 20, until all is sold.
Navajo Rug Repair has worked on many rare and historic rugs, said Jim Stilley. He’s a certified appraiser with four major accrediting organizations, the Appraisers National Association, the National Association of Professional Appraisers, the Association of Online Appraisers and the New England Appraisers Association.
Over the years, the Stilleys have serviced or appraised rugs from every major Navajo rugmaking center, including names that have come to represent regional styles, including Two Grey Hills, Teec Nos Pos, Ganado, Wide Ruins and Burntwater.
Jim Stilley can look at a rug, and within a few minutes tell its age and origin by its style, yarn and condition. He also has scrapbooks full of photos of valuable and historically important Navajo rugs that have come through the shop. He and Ursula can recall minute details of rugs they worked on years ago.
Stilley says the shop has serviced four of the five biggest Navajo rugs ever made, recalling a 21-by-31-foot behemoth woven in 1937 and valued at $465,000.
Mark Bahti, owner of Bahti Indian Arts in Tucson and Sante Fe, said he’s worked with the Stilleys for decades, and the couple will be sorely missed in the collecting community.
“I’ve counted on them for reliable cleaning of our rugs and fearlessly recommended them for cleaning and repair of collectible Navajo textiles, knowing how meticulously they approach each job,” said Bahti, whose father founded Bahti Indian Arts in 1952.
“They have a great enthusiasm for textiles that has made them extremely knowledgeable, as well as fun and interesting to talk to about Navajo weaving,” he added.
After they close the shop, Jim Stilley said, “We’re going to do a lot of things we haven’t done: travel and spend time with our grandchild.”