By Tori Marlan
Frank Connet is searching for the perfect shade of cream. There are brown creams, bone creams, yellow creams, gray creams–“a thousand variations,” he says. He has about 20 shades of cream yarn in his Ravenswood studio, but none exactly matches the 80-year-old wool of the Navajo rug he’s repairing. So on a recent weekend morning he’s pulling apart and respinning yarns by hand, twisting a ply of this shade with a ply of that, hoping to hit on a combination that comes close. “This is really insane,” he says. “But it’s easier than dyeing.” The recipe that finally pleases him blends four plies of a dirty green cream, two plies of a putty cream, and one ply of a yellow cream. Then he sits down to weave, and the holes in the rug begin to disappear. A day later it’s nearly impossible to tell where they were.
Connet has owned Textile Restoration for 12 years. On any given day the 40-year-old Kansas City native is surrounded by artifacts that represent a cross section of cultures and time periods. Along with the Navajo rug, he now has in his studio a 16th-century Inca poncho from Peru, an 18th-century needlepoint from Boston, a 19th-century tapestry from China, an early-20th-century shaman’s tunic from west Africa, and a few 1970s rhinestone-studded polyester suits from Mississippi.
Connet’s clients–collectors, dealers, museums, and owners of heirlooms–bring him their worn and torn treasures by appointment only. He cleans off the decades or centuries of corrosive grime and then either restores or conserves them. “With restoration,” he explains, “you rework something the way it was originally done–you reweave a tapestry, reknot a carpet, replace a section of quilt. With conservation, you try not to alter the original piece at all. You support and protect it so it doesn’t deteriorate further.” In either case, he says, “I’m taking great old things and helping them be around a bit longer.”
Connet reserves his greatest appreciation for pieces that were made by ancient cultures. “They used simple tools but had an incredible sense of aesthetics and an incredible sense of craftsmanship that is lost today.” He spreads the Inca poncho over a piece of cloth on the floor and sits down next to it. The garment consists of 66 small squares, each containing a unique, finely woven geometric design. “I see mind-numbing fineness,” he says. “Blinding.”
But the garment testifies to more than skilled hands, he says. It’s also a “link to the past,” revealing myriad clues about how it was made and used. A tiny finished tab on one corner where the threads turn around tells him that the poncho remains close to its original size, and that it therefore belonged to a child. The minimal damage (four missing squares, a few small holes, some fraying) and well-preserved colors (maroons, browns, and golds) suggest it has received little exposure to light and humidity in the 500 or so years it’s been around. Connet leans down and takes a whiff. “It has an old, nasty smell,” he says. He knows that the Incas wrapped their dead in mummy bundles and that today their graves are looted. “It was probably near a body.”
In today’s world, he says, where cloth is “throwaway,” it’s hard to conceive of the amount of time and effort the ancients devoted to textiles–unless, like him, you’ve done some weaving or natural dyeing yourself. Connet knows these laborious and difficult processes well. He regularly grinds up dead insects, walnuts, and plants for dyes, and he frequently screws up his back hunching for hours over something he’s weaving. Though he uses traditional methods–both in his restoration work and in his own textile art (he makes indigo tapestries)–Connet is no purist. He doesn’t use cactus thorns as needles, and he doesn’t urinate in his indigo baths, since lye works just as well.
Not many people know traditional techniques, he says, and good information, like good help, is hard to find. He learned what he knows in art school, at Smithsonian seminars, and through an apprenticeship, trial and error, and extensive reading. He has a spare copy of The Art and Craft of Natural Dyeing in case the first gets too badly stained–he wrote his first fan letter a few years ago to the author.
Connet has only one assistant and is always behind on his work. “A lot of times I’m not sure how to approach the pieces,” he admits. “And frankly, they sit around for a while while I mull it over.” Pieces sometimes sit around for a year.
That won’t happen with the Inca poncho, because he’s already figured out what to do with it. It’s too fragile and historically important to reweave, so he’ll realign the warps and wefts, returning the garment to its original shape. Then he’ll “visually fill in” the holes by tucking behind them patches of fabric he dyes to match. Finally he’ll stitch the garment to a stretcher, using a thread of organza silk as fine as a hair. When he’s finished, he says, “your eyes won’t zoom right to the flaws.”
Connet’s eager to start spending time on the poncho. “I just fall right into it,” he says. “I look at this and think, this is as great a piece of art as any of the well-known Western masters. Different technique, different sensibility, but just as great.”
Seeing great art in tattered and torn textiles can sometimes be a burden. Take the mid-19th-century Anatolian kilim he found in two pieces at a flea market in New York. It was heavy and cumbersome, but he had to have it. “I schlepped it back, complaining the whole time–why do I buy these car wrecks?”
He lines up the pieces of the well-worn kilim on his studio floor so that the patterns and abstract goddess figures come together. It looks like a carpet, but Connet says nomadic and pastoral cultures used kilims in many other ways too. They bunched them up and sat on them, hung them over the seams of their tents to block wind, used them as bags for weaving supplies, and strapped them to camels over their belongings when they traveled.
Connet points out the “beautiful, eccentric color changes” of the reds and greens, an indication the yarn was dyed a couple of hanks at a time, in small, slightly different dye lots. It must have taken forever to finish. “You know why I bought it? The guy who was selling it told me he was going to make pillows out of it. It makes me crazy–people are always cutting these up to make pillows.”
He folds the kilim and puts it back on a shelf in the “ripped pile,” where it’s been for five years. He laughs and says he has so much work he might never get around to restoring it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.