Coastal Salish Weaving
Coastal Salish Weaving Wool Weaving
Materials: The most common materials for weaving wool Coast Salish blankets, shawls or dresses was from using the Mountain Goat and from the wool dogs that were kept by the Coast Salish people. Wool from the mountain goat was a highly valued trade item. The S’Klallam traded with tribes close to the Cascade Mountains and from Canada for the prized wool. The other wool that was used by the S’Klallam people was from the wool dogs.
The Coast Salish people’s wool dogs were raised for the value of the wool. There is no information as to were these wool dogs originated. All wool dogs were kept separate from the other tribal dogs because to mix with the common dogs would weaken and shorten the wool. The description of the wool dogs was of a small dog with long fine soft hair. The Northwest Coast Tribes were not what is considered an agriculture society, but as a fishing/hunting/gathering. But the raising the wool dogs as a domestic herd animal (there are accounts of native people herding and caring for dogs by native people and early contact explores), means that the Coast Salish practiced a form of agriculture. There are a few dog wool blankets in museums in Europe.
Once contact with non-natives, the use for dog and mountain goat wool changed. The wool dogs were allowed to become extent as a separate breed and to mix with the other village dogs. The mountain goat became a sport animal for non-native hunters and the skin may have been valued with the hair as a rug, but the wool was not separated from the hide to be used for weaving. With the Coast Salish people being able to trade for pre-made blankets, wool coats, for yarn, sweaters, and other article of clothing there seemed no need to keep the dogs. Much of the first wool materials i.e. sweaters, wool coats, blankets, would be unraveled and then re-woven in traditional Salish blankets.
The other materials mixed into the wool were fireweed fluff (when the fireweed goes to seed in late summer), head of cattail rush, duck, goose, gull down and cedar bark. All of these materials would add warmth to the wool.
Prepare wool: The wool dogs would be sheared as sheep using a sharp knife, letting the hair grow back for the next shearing. With both dog and mountain goat wool the coarse guard hairs would be picked out. Mountain goat wool was gathered at times in the spring by going high in the mountains and picking the wool off the bushes that the goats have rubbed against to get rid of the winter coat. If mountain goat had been hunted for food, then the whole skin would have been soaked in water for several days to loosen the hair, then pulling the hair off the skin. To cut off the hair from a dead mountain goat would be to waste some of the wool.
After the wool is picked clean of grass, twigs, and guard hairs it is placed on a mat and pounded with a stick (beater). White clay was mixed with the wool to whiten, to make clean and remove some of the oil. The moist clay would be put into a fire of maple wood for curing, when cured it becomes a bleached white.
Spindle Whorl and Thigh Spun Yarn: Two ways were used by the Coast Salish people for spinning yarn, using a whorl on a spindle shaft or spinning by rolling the yarn on your thigh. Using a spindle and whorl makes ‘S’ twist yarn and the thigh spun makes a ‘Z’ twist. Before you start spinning yarn, you take the wool and make a roving (roving is wool pulled into long thin strips that will spin easily), that aligns the wool fibers. The yarns were two-ply (taking two one ply yarns and spinning them together). Using a spindle and whorl you make two balls of yarn (spinning to your body) then plying by spinning two yarns together, spinning away from your body. When plying using the spindle and whorl the yarn is passed through a tension ring that is high overhead (in the past hanging from the roof/ceiling). If you yarn is very heavy, you may use only a single ply to do your weaving. When making thigh spun yarn you lay two roving of yarn parallel across your upper thigh. The wool is spun down the leg, keeping each roving separate, at the knee you let the roving come together then reverse the spin by spinning back up your thigh. In spinning wool this way you spin then ply at the same time.
The spindle and whorls used by the Coast Salish people are made in varying size, from small to make fine yarn (spin on leg), to whorls 6” to 8” in diameter and a spindle 3’ long. The whorls were made from stone or wood with the spindle made from cedar wood. Whorls were often carved and these show some of the best examples of Coast Salish art. The spindle and whorl were also used for making fine cord for fish, and duck netting. The material for the making of netting is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica). The stinging nettle is gathered in late September and October, split, and dried. To remove the fiber for spinning soak the dried nettle, then beat off the hard core. You then comb the fiber to align for spinning.
Thigh spun yarn would be used for the wrap, (wrap is the yarn that the loom is set up with and what you weave upon, the weft). Weft yarn is the weaving yarn and is made of two-ply spindle yarn. The thigh spun wrap was not always used, only on the finer woven blankets, which usually were brightly colored. There are only a few of these colored blankets, a few in museums in Europe and eastern United States museums.
Looms: The Coast Salish loom is a two round cross bars held in place by two up rights, with a wrapping bar put in place when the loom is being set up for weaving. The up rights are either put in the ground or stand holders (braces on the floor that they are set into). The up rights have several notches cut at the top and bottom, making it possible to weave different sizes. The notches are also large enough for the round bar ends and for several wedges. The wedges are used for keeping the tension of the weaving consistent. The wrapping bar makes it possible when your weaving is completed and removing from the loom that there is no cutting as it will come off in one piece just by removing the wrapping bar. You may start at the top or the bottom of the loom, as long as you start next to the wrapping bar, moving the weaving up or down and over the bar, ending at the other end next to the wrapping bar. The weaving is done by going right to left and returning left to right.
The other loom on the Northwest Coast is made with two up rights that support a single bar at the top with a support bar about half way down the loom. The bar at the top is drilled with holes for holding a cord that the yarn hangs from. The yarn is thigh spun, is cut to length and is let to hang (thigh spun yarn does not unravel if cut). To keep the yarn clean bags are placed over the bottom part (in the past used gut bags, now large socks). You start at the top and weave down. If you are making a Chilcat weaving you weave back and forth, if weaving raven tail you weave left to right each row.
Blankets, Shawls, Straps, Rags: The most common Salish blankets and shawls are of a heavy yarn (usually chunky from the spinning style, and the added down or fluff), they are white with an inset boarder (about 2” to 4” from the edge) of black. A fringe may be woven down both sides while weaving a blanket or shawl and put across the bottom. This is done by a separate yarn that hangs down on both sides then is caught every few rows leaving 3” or 4” fringe. But a fringe was not necessarily put on a weaving, many blankets and shawls have no fringe.
At times a blanket would be made lined with fur, goose, or duck down. Materials for the lining would be cut into very thin strips. If goose or duck down is being used, the feathers are removed from the bird but the down left on the skin. The skin is cut into one continues strip without the down coming off, fur would also be cut this way. The down or fur would be placed on the loom same as the yarn. When weaving you need to make sure that the down and fur stay on what will be the inside of the blanket, as the down and fur strips want to twist.
Carrying straps, also called trump lines, were woven from wool, nettle and at times cedar. The nettle or cedar cord would be used as the wrap and the wool as the weft. These straps were mostly used for carrying burden baskets on your back. The strap fits across the forehead, going over the shoulders and attaching to the basket. It is the center part of the strap that is woven with both ends braded.
The natural color of the wool would be patterned be dyed wool. A black mud (from salt marsh, with rich iron) or the combination of concentrated darker dye will produce a rich black/brown. The root from the Oregon grape and the wolf lichen produces yellow colors and inter alder bark red. These are the main colors used in very early weaving with many colors used after contact due to the easy access to dyes and colored cloth. Colored cloth made into strips where used at time in weaving, in place of dyed wool. Urine was the most common mordant for setting dyes.
Rags were used in weaving after contact as nothing is wasted. Some of the most beautiful rugs I have ever seen were made from rags and woven on a Salish loom and they are now at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C. It was not possible to tell they were rags until I was up close and could see a few raw edges. Rags were also used for carrying straps and belts.
Signature: The weaver will leave a signature on the work. On a blanket or a shawl it is often done by weaving a set pattern always in the same location of your weaving. This may be in the body of your work or in the fringe. I traveled to Perth, Scotland in order to visit an early colored Salish blanket. After studying the blanket for hours I found her signature in the fringe. This weaver used a brown yarn to always go from one color to the next and at points would bring the brown yarn out into the fringe. In the right hand corner of the fringe she wove a pattern in the same brown wool, this was her signature. At that moment it was as if I came face to face with the weaver.
Cedar Bark Weaving
Material: The inner bark of both the western red cedar, (Thuja plicata) and Alaska yellow cedar, (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis) is used in weaving. Yellow cedar is harder to find on the Olympic Peninsula, it grows at a much higher elevation then the western red. In gathering the cedar bark you must be careful not to over harvest from one tree (unless from a downed tree). In taking only a small cedar bark strip from a tree, the empty strip will seal, and heal over, not causing damage to the standing tree, allowing for continued growth. Harvesting of cedar bark is done in the spring and at times in the fall. As soon as the bark is removed form the tree, you would separate the inner bark from the outer bark, (unless you are making a bent cedar bark basket). The inner bark is then dried and stored in a dry place for later use.
Prepare: The nature of the two cedar trees makes the bark suited for different use and how to prepare. When using dried western red cedar bark for diapers, towels or clothing, you would beat the dry bark, using a blade type of beater with the bark placed over a sharp edge of a board. As you beat the red cedar bark you continue to move the bark over the sharp board edge making the bends every 1/8 of an inch. If using red cedar bark for baskets, mats etc. you soak the bark, then split and cut to length.
To prepare yellow cedar bark, you must soak the bark for five (5) to seven (7) days (some people boil to soften faster). Once yellow cedar bark is soak you then beat the bark with a bark beater on a hard surface (such as a flat rock). The bark beater is a made either from hard wood or bone. The face used for beating is about 6 inches long, having groves cut the length and about 1/16 of an inch apart with the handle 6 inches long. Yellow cedar bark is better suited for making clothing, it beats much finer (heavy thread size), and does not break or come apart as red cedar bark.
Circle Looms: When making a skirt often a circular loom is used, this allows the weaver to continue weaving and the skirt will have no seam. To make a circle loom would take the use of three (3) poles tied close to the top and making a tri-pod, (similar to a teepee shape).
Skirts, Shawls & Robes: The red and yellow cedar bark, are incredibly warm materials, plus have the advantage of shedding water. The yellow cedar bark has more oil so would be better at shedding water when used for clothing. Often cedar bark skirts would be woven in two layers, the inner layer next to the skin being very fine and the outer a heaver weave. Shawls and robes would be woven as the wool on a freestanding loom, not the salish loom. As with the wool shawls and robes the cedar barks ones may also be lined with down or fur.