People/Country: Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian Indigenous peoples / Northwest Coastal North America
Loom Style: Chilkat loom, no fixed warp, no shuttle
Border: Woven Tlingit ceremonial robe (Naaxein) pattern
Copper sulphate/salt etching
Yak’eí (yagiyee)/Good day
Done by Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other indigenous peoples of British Colombia and Alaska. Chilkat weaving, named for one of the Tlingit groups, is perhaps the most complex technique and unlike most weaving techniques, allows for the creation of circular patterns and curvilinear lines. Looms used in Chilkat weaving have only a top frame and vertical supports, with no bottom frame, so the warp strands hang down freely, and the weft threads are twined and manipulated by hand without a shuttle. The pattern is woven from top to bottom, and extra warps are added as needed for complex patterns and to make the curved bottom border.
Traditionally, men would paint a life-size pattern board that a woman weaver would follow to create a ceremonial robe. Sometimes pattern boards were used over and over, and though there were strict conventions, there were also opportunities for individual interpretations. Animal forms make up the patterns. Often almost human-like eyes form the center pattern and represent the inner spirit of the animal. (The U. of Rochester link below provides an excellent audio explanation of the common robe images and symbols.)
Skilled weavers, today, are working at preserving the traditional methods. The weft can be left a natural off white or dyed. Hemlock bark yields black; wolf moss produces yellow; and the addition of copper could makes blue. The warp is leg spun (rubbed together by hand along the weaver’s leg) into dense strips that can be worked or finger twined by hand. Since there is no fixed base to hold the warp straight and no shuttle to control the cross strips, unlike in most weaving processes, the Tlingit weaver can weave circles and oval shapes into their designs. The free-falling warp allows for long (12 inches or more) fringe threads at the bottom of the robe.
The material traditionally was mountain goat wool and stripped cedar root. As many as five goats were needed to provide wool for one robe. (Now, sheep and domestic goat wool may be used. The long thin cedar “runner roots,” not the strong base root are harvested for weaving.
It takes an artist up to 2,000 hours, or 83 days, to weave just one ceremonial robe. And it could take a year to weave a blanket.
When I visited Vancouver, Canada, I made a special trip to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, just outside the city proper. I highly recommend it. This amazing museum holds an outstanding collection of “First Nation” cultural artifacts ( 50,000 ethnographical and 535,000 archaeological objects!), from authentic totem poles, to potlatch bowls as big as a small boat, to Tlingit weavings, even a model Haida house
According to the museum information:“Chilkat robes were symbols of wealth: to own them endowed a chief with great prestige. Even greater prestige resulted from giving them away in potlatch.” (If you have a chance, research the potlatch custom. You will find it quite fascinating.) The robe could also be cut into strips and given to several important guests if no one person of high rank was present. These strips would be made into ceremonial garments, such as aprons, leggings, headdresses or bags
The weaver is wearing a button vest, another clothing item associated with the Tlingit peoples. Button-decorated tunics and blankets became part of native attire once trade with Russia and other Europeans brought felt and beads. Mother of pearl buttons were often used to outline animal images and symbols of specific tribal clans.
The hat shown here is also typical of Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, such as the Haida, the Tlingit, the Kwakiutl. The hats, made of spruce root or cedar bark, were often painting with spirit animals. As Dr. Gerald F. Schroedl points out, such hats were most useful in the rainy climate of the Northwest Coast.
References and Links:
( Note: I do not endorse or mean to promote any of these sites.)
- Benson, Diane E. Tlingit. Countries and their Culture. Traditional Garments and Regalia. (Lots of additional reference source.)
- Chilkat Robe (Naaxein) Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester (NY). https://mag.rochester.edu/teachers/picturing-the-story/the-chilkat-robe/ An excellent audio description of a Tlingkit robe design. Very revealing.
- Dockstrader, Frederick J. Indian Art of the Americas, Museum of the American Indian.1973 print
- Jones, Cynthia. Chilkat Blanket.1987 Haines Shelton Museum. https://www.sheldonmuseum.org/vignette/chilkat-blanket/
- MOA. Museum of Anthropology. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Search collection.
- NationalClothing.org /“Discovering American Indian Art” at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture
- Taylor, Sherry. Lily Hope: Tlingit Weaver of Chilkat and Ravenstail. Handwoven. 3/11/2020 https://handwovenmagazine.com/lily-hope-tlingit-weaver-of-chilkat-and-ravenstail/
- Tutter, Catherine. 16/5/2019. Textiles in Context. Chilkat Blanket (Native American, Tlingit, 1900-1914) https://textilesincontext.net/2019/05/16/chilkat-blanket-native-american-tlingit-1900-1914/ Image: MFA, Boston.