Ravenstail is an ancient form of weaving. It was practiced by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and other Northwest Coast Indigenous people in Alaska and Canada, until the late-1700s.
In long ago times, items like hats, aprons, robes and blankets were handmade for family members or gifted to friends using wool they made from mountain goat hair.
It’s said this artform slept for more than 200 years. It was overshadowed by the more well-known and colourful Chilkat or Naxiin weaving, and then the cultural oppression that came with colonization.
Today, a small number of historical examples remain, but over the past few decades many determined weavers in Alaska and Yukon are working to revive the traditional practice and to teach others.
Some weavers find it a healing activity and a spiritual experience. The finished pieces have their own spirit and are cared for as sacred items. They are intended to be used and “danced to life.”
Weaving with traditional materials is a time-consuming process. It can take months just to prepare the wool from the mountain goat hide.
First the hide is wet, and then rolled up and left to sit until the hair fibres loosen and the fleece can be slipped off. The fleece is cleaned, carded, and gathered into roving, which means it’s placed so the fibres all lie the same way, parallel to each other. Then, the roving is spun into string.
Without spindles or spinning wheels, traditional weavers used a process called thigh spinning. While seated, they placed the roving on their thigh and used a flat dampened hand to roll the roving up and down their leg. Bit by bit the fibres ply or spin together into a strong yarn. Thigh spinning is a long process that takes patience and skill.
After the yarn is spun, it’s coloured with natural dyes, such as moss, barks, copper, or grasses. The deep black colour common to ravenstail pieces comes from a two-dye combination. First the wool is soaked in a mixture of hemlock tree bark, iron, and old urine, which gives the yarn a dark red colour. The second dye bath was made from a mixture of oxidized copper and old urine, which makes a blue-green colour on its own but combined with the red from the first bath turns the yarn a rich black.
Although other types of weaving, such as the newer Chilkat technique, uses many different colours, ravenstail generally uses just black and white with sparing use of other colours such as yellow, blue and red.
Also, when Europeans and other outsiders came to the Northwest, they traded things like melton wool coats in bright colours. Sometimes those garments would be unraveled, and the threads would be reused in a new design by the Indigenous weavers.
In the oldest forms of weaving other things, such as cedar bark, were also spun into the wool to give blankets and robes more structure. Today weavers might use commercial wools or spin their own merino wool.
Ravenstail hand weaving uses a single-bar loom. The vertical threads of wool, called the warp, are only attached to the top bar of the loom while the bottoms of the threads hang loose. Traditionally, they were folded into sacs to keep them from getting dirty. Today, a weaver might use baby socks to gather the threads and hold them off the floor.
Bit by bit, the horizontal threads, called the welt, are twisted and knotted into the warp to create full rows. The horizontal threads are cut and knotted at the beginning and the end of the row, so each row is separate from the others.
The first rows weaved are called the set, and they create the tension in the piece. It’s up to the skill and deft fingers of the weaver to keep the tension even as more rows are added and the design comes to life.
The bottom fringe, which is commonly left to hang, is an extension of the warp. And often on robes a piece of fur is attached to the top to line the neck opening.
The work is complex, and so weaving just one row of ravenstail can take 45 minutes. It might take six months for an experienced weaver to make an apron and up to two years to make a blanket. It takes a lifetime to master the technique.
Ravenstail gets its name from the lively strands of wool that are left loose to move and flow, much like the tailfeathers of a bird. The central designs are generally bold and eye-catching. The distinct black-and-white motifs make them easy to identify and hard to ignore.
Each new design starts in the mind of the weaver, choosing form, pattern, and colour. They carefully draw out the shapes, sometimes tapping into tradition by using ancestral basket designs.
Common design elements include geometric figures, such as squares and rectangles, chevrons and U- and W-shapes. The shapes represent things like waves, flying birds, and bear tracks.
The designs were used to tell stories and pass them on through the generations. For example, a modern robe by the late well-known Alaskan weaver Teri Rofkar tells the story of the earthquake that destroyed parts of Anchorage in 1964. It uses the geometric bear tracks pattern to show how the earthquake shifted the land like the weight of a large bear might do.
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