FARMINGTON — In a world where a machine can produce almost any item 10 times over without any variance, it's easy to forget that sometimes it's the mistakes that make things perfect.
Nothing illustrates this better than the tale of the Navajo rug, a traditional textile known for its brilliance, its pattern, its hardiness, and its one dropped stitch. The dropped stitch is nothing close to a human error. Instead, it is something far more significant.
The dropped stitch is an intentional touch of human craft that reminds the Navajo, or the Diné people, that nothing on Earth is perfect aside from their God.
The rug even became known for its legendary imperfection, a detail that began when Spiderwoman taught Diné women to weave their sheep's wool.
But time beyond the legend brings us to today, where imperfections are considered unnecessarily ugly and entirely erasable.
With this mindset, the leathered hands and wearied eyes that labored and slaved for thousands of years to create something of individual quality have fallen slightly to the wayside.
That ubiquitous trend of imitation work has made its way into all reaches of artisanship, even into the field of Navajo rug weaving.
"I just think it degrades the art the Navajos do. They do quite a lot of work," said Joel Jones, manager of the revered Bob French Navajo Rugs shop in Waterflow. "I don't want the cheap imitations."
About three times a year, a trader will bring an imitation rug that is oily, thick and ragged at the sides.
"It's not really a competition, but I will get irritated. They're just hurting their own people by bringing that trashy stuff into the reservation," Jones said, explaining that those who bring in the imposter rugs are usually from the Navajo Nation, but they've acquired an import usually made in Mexico. Some are unaware and just want an estimate, while others are trying to pull the wool over Jones' eyes.
However, the difference between a dropped stitch and shoddy craftsmanship is easy to tell for Jones, and also for seasoned buyers. Those with an untrained eye should be careful with roadside peddlers and flea markets. They are prime selling locations for imitation works.
Stores such as Jones' try to sell only regional items, and Alex Benally's Hogan gift shop is similar.
"Most of what you see here is made by people we know," said Benally, the Farmington shop's owner, as he surveyed his collection of locally made silver and bead work.
But at the center of the store there is a noticeable invasion of international items that had no place decades ago.
Among the traditionally made sand paintings, cradle boards and sage bunches are shelves of foreign-made souvenirs that are marketed in the Four Corners area. Shot glasses, salt-and-pepper shakers and snow globes all flaunt the cacti, canyons and sunshine the area enjoys.
All have a tiny, gold sticker reading, "Made in China."
Granted, those items are not hard to pinpoint, and they are not necessarily the souvenirs that compete with genuine artisan work of local American Indians.
It's the synthetic turquoise, the nickel metalwork and the machine-made rugs that challenge the sales of the genuine work. The shop said it maintains only a small collection of imitation work, in case that's what a consumer really wants.
"The mass-produced jewelry looks pretty much the same," Benally said as he handled a barrette embedded with lab-grown turquoise. It's still attractive to many, though, he said.
Turquoise is just one of the highly sought-after stones that can be sold under false pretenses. Sometimes, it's natural, but it was mined from China or Taiwan. Other times, it's a polished chunk of magnetite that was adjusted chemically.
"Yeah, it's turquoise, but its color is the only thing that's turquoise," said George Francis, metalsmith and manager of the Hogan gift shop.
The synthetic stone is noticeably smoother, without any discoloration or inconsistencies. Though it's not always a safe way to tell which stones are natural, veins of darkness and rough patches generally indicate that the stone originally was from the ground.
The most important component of finding genuine craftwork is finding the right dealer, artisans said.
The Hogan gift shop, for instance, always tells the consumer if a piece is not natural.
While the infiltration of imitation art has varied effects on local artisans, the suffering economy is driving consumers to consider price more. Imitation craft is usually cheaper because of its lesser quality, so there is an increasing demand for it.
"Jewelry is jewelry, no matter where it comes from," Francis said, noting that imitation work is still desirable to many.
Local organizations have made an effort to purify certain venues.
The Totah Festival, a popular Native arts and performances festival in Farmington usually held around Labor Day, made an effort in recent years to cleanse the inventory of foreign-made items, Totah officials said. Many of the vendors were upset by the initial wipeout of imitation works, but local artists appreciated the action.
International imitators, in an effort to emulate Southwest work, often infringe on copyright laws that are applicable both in the United States and on the Navajo Nation.
"It comes up once in a while," said Francis, who has known both international and local work to cross the line of copied originality. A design or creation made popular by a Southwest artist can then go viral and become a mass-produced item, for which the original creator gets little credit.
Many artists prefer profiting from their own work, rather than watching their work grow popular through someone else's mass-produced copy.
Benally, owner of the Hogan gift shop, said he simply wears his work to gain attention.
"It's kind of a form of advertisement in a way. I've taken a few orders off my wrist here," said Benally, who takes pride in the time and creativity he puts into his work. "When you've been around it all your life, that's where your heart is."
Jenny Kane: firstname.lastname@example.org