Native American Chilkat Weaving: Gorgeous pattern
How is everybody’s New Year so far? I do wish you all many moons of happiness, love and tranquility 🙂 I know I am praying for all of this myself. So here we are in 2016, this site being almost a year old! How exciting!! I have posted over 100 articles here about a variety of topics. I have had guest writers and partnerships in writing. I have discussed the traditions, the history, the beauty and trauma of the Native American people, of the Indigenous people of the land. I have also introduced a few art pieces, Native artists as well as reviewed products I bought. And here we are and I still have ideas 🙂 As I have mentioned a few times, I live in the Pacific Northwest, on the West Coast of Canada. I am not only surrounded by the Plains and Prairie people but also by the Pacific Northwest culture. Or cultures, I should say. And one of the most beautiful designs in my eyes is the Chilkat (you pronounce the “t” at the end) pattern. Chilkat weaving is just a gorgeous form of art that stands out. Let’s then explore the origins of the Native American Chilkat weaving.
Where did the art originate from?
Chilkat weaving originally comes from the Tsimshian people and later spread to or came to the Tlingit people (Alaska) through marriage or trade. The Tlingit people became known as hardworking weavers. Indeed, the blankets (such as the one above) were sought after long before the arrival of the European settlers. In the mid 1800’s the blankets were selling for $30, a very large amount of money for the time!
The art of Chilkat weaving was traditionally practiced by the wealthy. Both men and women participated and blankets were coveted. Having one was a privilege. Men typically designed the pattern and made the pattern board. They also gathered the goat hides for the wool. The women, gathered the cedar bark (still used today), prepared the yarn and actually weaved the blanket.
How was it weaved?
Well, it was all done by hand basically! A labor of love if there was ever one. The women would wet the goat hide and roll it, pushing the wool off. They would then stretch and roll the wool by hand. Wool was used to form the weft (the horizontal interlacing threads). And cedar bark was rolled in the strands to make the warp yarn (the vertical threads). A time consuming and labor intensive process! Natural dyes were used for the traditional colors of yellow, dark brown and blue. The yellow was derived using wolf moss (lichen), the brown and blue by boiling the wool with urine and hemlock bark and urine and copper, respectively. Yes not the most attractive ways but they worked with what they had…Those were the traditional ways of the time. However, by the late 1890’s, they were using commercial dyes.
Although the earlier designs were painted on, later on, blankets were manually weaved. The women followed the designs painted on boards by the men. As you can see from the picture above, a simple loom (2 poles and a cross bar, does not get any simpler than that…) was used. What you see above are warp threads suspended from the cross bar and weighted at the ends with stones to give tension to the yarn (made it easier to work with). Like the woman in the picture, the weaver would sit or kneel in front the whole time, weaving away with her fingers (a process called twining). I can only imagine how their back felt afterwards…So labor intensive.
Here I say blankets, but more than blankets were weaved. Dance aprons, leggings, tunics, pouches were also made. But the blankets remained special. Most of them were ceremonial blankets, worn as robes during ceremonies or special occasions including a potlach (gift giving feast).
So what makes up the Chilkat designs? The meaning of the patterns were truly fully known by the man who designed the blanket. He was the holder of the legend. But typically the patterns represented clan symbols and natural forms and relations in an abstract pattern. Geometrical forms were also used. You will then often see animals, but as though they were laid flat out (sliced down the middle then laid flat out). Therefore, a three dimensional pattern would be represented in two dimensions. You could then see a bear, first his right profile, then head-on view then left profile.
Some say that men were and are only permitted to add and paint designs involving living creatures and animals. Women would then add abstract symbols or spirits associated with the tribe or the robe wearer. Typically, the one painting it would include an easily recognizable feature of the animal. Once you get familiar with Northwest coast designs, you learn to recognize the depicted animals, might it be a whale, hummingbird, wolf or a bear. To see beautiful hand-carved silver jewelry featuring west coast designs, see my friend Randy’s work for sale here!
Below you see a scarf of mine depicting a Chilkat pattern. It is made by Mike Dangeli, a Tlingit artist, I discuss more in details here. I also have a wooden bangle with the same design and colors as well as a leather apron by Mike. Wonderful artist! And that scarf is so big it is basically a wrap. So practical!
So there you have it, Native American Chilkat weaving. A gorgeous art form, rich in history and cultural meaning. I leave you with a short video of Anna Brown Ehlers, an Alaskan Chilkat Weaver, explaining her art.
What do you think of the Chilkat designs? Are you familiar with them? Comment below 🙂
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