By Jenny Neyman
The development of collaborative and complex forms of art is an indication of a thriving, high-functioning culture, one in which not every moment of the day is consumed with the bare necessities of survival. So don’t even think about calling the indigenous people of Southeast Alaska 200 years ago “primitive.” Yes, they lacked written language and the technologies that would come with Western contact, but they wore their creativity, ingenuity and diligence on their sleeves — or, rather, as their sleeves.
To put it simply, they could weave circles around you. Literally. And civilization today nearly forgot all about it.
The Chilkat weaving technique of the Tlingit, Haida and other Northwest Coast populations is one of the most complex in the world, unique in its ability to create curvilinear and circular forms in the weave itself. And within that style are echoes of an even older tradition, from the mid-1700s and earlier, with even more complexity, yet even less examples still in existence — just 15 known to exist in the world.
That is until the 1980s, when fiber artist and researcher Cheryl Samuel went in search for the perfect woven circle, and found it in the totemic designs of Chilkat robes.
“Chilkats are the only people in the world who wove a perfect circle. They learned how to pull weft strands onto the surface and catch them only with other weft strands so that instead of being a stair step, like circles are in weaving, it was actually a perfect circle,” said Kay Field Parker, who learned about Ravenstail from Samuel.
Samuel was captivated and delved into the button blanket robes bearing the Raven, Eagle and other clan symbols. The more Samuel studied, the more she uncovered references to the earlier weaving practice from which Chilkat developed. It was more geometric, with strong, linear patterns, whereas Chilkat designs are cuviliniar and totemic. Known until then as the Northern Geometric weaving style, Samuel coined the term Ravenstail and obtained grants to travel the world to study the few known examples left in existance. She worked out how to duplicate the patterns by teasing out the secrets of the techniques and began producing the style to other weavers.
Since then, Ravenstail has seen a resurgence, particularly in Alaska, but including a weaving guild that boasts over 100 members around the world. Parker, of Juneau, is one of the most noted practitioners in the state, and a display of her work is the spring art exhibit at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
She gave a presentation to open the show last month, complete with a weaving demonstration. Teaching is central to the Ravenstail revival, after all, since it was Samuel’s curiosity that saved the technique from obscurity.
Parker first learned of Ravenstail in 1987, while taking a class in spruce root basketry at the University of Alaska Southeast. She’s a lifelong crafter, but found the basketry difficult and, well, increasingly unappealing.
“I started noticing the class across the hall was a Ravenstail class, and as the weeks went by my basket got uglier and their weaving got more beautiful and I was hooked,” she said.
Parker studied Samuel’s book on Ravenstail and had a chance to take a class from her a few years later. Next came the big challenge — participating with a group that was weaving a robe as a demonstration project at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. It took about 1,400 hours over 13 months of warp and weft through trial and error.
“As we were weaving it we didn’t know what we were doing. We made lots of mistakes that had to be taken out. Back then it was expensive to make a phone call, let alone, how do you get a photo to someone? So we actually ended up finishing this robe thinking we didn’t have enough warp to weave the last pattern band,” Parker said.
Samuel came to town to inspect the work and made it clear that close enough was not good enough.
“We have a ceremony before the public, we call the robe done and she takes us in the back room and says, ‘Nope, you need to take out that 5-inch border and weave that other 8-inch pattern band,’” she said.
Ravenstail is a laboriously slow process. An apron can take Parker six months to complete, even now, with her 20 years of experience and the conveniences of modern materials.
The original Ravenstail weavers used the undercoat of mountain goat hair, which is softer than even the best merino yarn used today, but required pulling away layers of guard hair to get at the fiber underneath. The weavers made a two-ply, very fine, tightly twisted yarn that didn’t compact when woven and wasn’t fuzzy, so as to better show off the striking patterns.
“The materials were all spun on their thigh. As you move it down your leg you’re twisting the individual strands, as you move it back up you’re plying it together. With that motion you create about an inch of material,” Parker said.
Has she created any of the authentic yarn herself?
“No,” she said, laughing and balking at the time that would take. “I like to weave, so, yeah, I buy my materials,” she said.
Along with the natural color, the yarn was also dyed black or yellow. Yellow came from a moss that grows on spruce trees, but not on the coast where the weavers lived. It was a trade item from east of the mountains. Black was dyed with the inner bark of hemlock trees, but could only be collected in the spring. Best not to run out of yarn midproject.
Ravenstail is a twining method, where the horizontal weft yarn spirals around the vertical warps and other wefts, similar to some basketry techniques. In regular weaving, the wefts are plaited under and over the warps. In Chilkat, the designs are done in small weaving areas that are tied together into a complete piece. Ravenstail robes are worked in horizontal rows progressing from top to bottom, with boarders added last and finished with various embellishments, like abalone or deer hooves. The geometric patterns build, row by row, in a constant sequence of picking up and dropping colored strands of yarn, with various methods at the weaver’s disposal.
“Ravenstail, there are seven different techniques in this style of weaving. In Chilkat there’s only three. So this was very highly developed. We have no idea what span of time they did this weaving in, but they had enough time to develop some great patterns and techniques,” Parker said.
After 20 years of study and practice, Parker still hasn’t learned all she can. Her next challenge is perfecting weaving a tunic with sleeves. There are only a handful of Chilkat examples in existence, which she’s examined and adapted to Ravenstail designs.
“It’s part the challenge and part the development of it and part just doing it,” she said. “It’s actually very relaxing and very yogalike once you learn how to do it and get relaxed doing it, because it’s just a repetitive motion that you have to concentrate on. Your hands are in this nice, soft yarn. Your eyes are watching these wonderful patterns develop.”
Several members of the local fiber arts guild attended Parker’s demonstration, eager to see the patterns develop for themselves, clustering around Parker as she worked at a loom, peppering her with questions and craning around her hands for a closer look.
Lee Coray-Ludden, of Clam Gulch, who visited the show with her daughter, Sarah Goodwin, of Sterling, could barely contain herself at just looking.
“My mouth hangs open and I say, ‘Oh my God!’ I just want to touch it. She’s policing me, ‘Don’t touch it, Mom, See the sign? Don’t touch it.’ But because I work with fiber I want to touch it,” she said, her hands plucking the air above a tunic. “That’s the beauty of fiber arts, it’s a very tactile thing. You’ve got the abalone, you’ve got the metal, you’ve got the hooves, you’ve got the different fibers in here and fur, all coming together to make this exquisite beauty.”
Even if someone had no experience with weaving they could appreciate the beauty of the garments, she said.
“I mean, look at the detail, the exquisite detail here — the perfection, the balance of it all, throughout the whole thing. And yet, there’s a sense of movement,” she said.
And being a fiber artist, Coray-Ludden was awed by the intricacy as well as the artistry, and the thought that it came from people over 200 years ago.
“I think it’s exquisite and it just expresses what a rich heritage was here before anybody got here,” she said. “When a culture gets to this level of art form that’s a very sophisticated culture, and that’s what the people of Southeast have, and yet when the Russians came in and the Americans came in, we didn’t acknowledge that. And so, to see this, I think is wonderful.”