Spinninglizzy's Weblog

Falling down the slippery fibre slope

Chillkat Weaving

I’m so sorry, you haven’t heard from me in quite some time! Life has been full of distractions, and much as I love the blogging world, I’ve barely had enough time to weave, and none to spare for the writing of it.

The Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus had a wonderful textiles exhibit that finished earlier this February. I took a class offered by the Burke, and taught by Evelyn Vanderhoop, an expert in the field of extremely labour-intensive Chillkat weaving.

Evelyn demonstrating techniques:

An massive ichthyosaur fossil looked down upon us in the classroom:

Chillkat is more accurately termed braiding, rather than weaving; and is a technique used to create ceremonial robes and blankets by several Northwest coastal tribes, including the Tlingit (pronounced “Kling-Kit”) and Haida.

Warps are suspended loose from a top frame, without weight or tension, and are created by hand-plying (rolling on the thigh) wool and thin cedar strips. We were given some strips and wool pencil roving to try our hands at rolling warps.

The cedar is painstakingly gathered from live old-growth cedar trees, and permissible only by permit. Any tree larger than what you can put your arms around is large enough, and yellow cedars are preferred, as red cedar is less flexible, and will crack. Less than a quarter of the circumference of a tree is harvested, that the tree may continue to live afterwards. A hatchet is used to strip a layer at the base of the tree, and pulled up to get as long a length as possible. Kept soaked in water until the time of plying, the cedar strips stay flexible enough for the plying with wool to make warps. The dried warps have just enough stiffness and weight to be workable and yet hang without tangling.

Because Chillkat is traditionally for ceremonial cloth, there are rules to observe, such as weaving with washed hands and abstaining from food while weaving. A small blanket can take more than a year to complete. Many pieces I’ve seen use the same four colours: yellow, black, blue, and white. Yellow comes from using wolf moss as dye. Blue is traditionally used for chiefs’ robes, and the dye sources are said to be closely-held secrets.

Evelyn’s WIP (work in progress):


Note that this is very dense, weft-faced fabric. No tools except fingers are used to pack the warps in tightly!

This was Evelyn’s idea for the student projects:

This is what I (and all the other students) managed to complete after several hours of instruction (I can see the weft hasn’t been packed in tightly enough!):

While I enjoyed what I learned of Chillkat weaving, I don’t have the time or patience to devote to this craft, and I’m very happy to leave it to the experts!

Recommended reading for those of you wishing to learn more about Chillkat weaving and techniques: The Raven’s Tail, and The Chillkat Dancing Blanket, both  by Cheryl Samuel.



18 July 2011 - Posted by | Weaving | , , , ,

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