Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Coast Salish Woven Fabrics - More questions than answers

I am curious to know more about traditional Coast Salish woven fabrics, especially those collected pre 1830s. Coast Salish weavings can be incredibly complex. Techniques include twining (double, simple, three-strand), openwork, overlay, tapestry and twill. Some of the patterns were very intricate and made of fibres from dog wool/hair, nettle and mountain goat wool. There is even reference to one that included down. 
Paula Gustafson in her book Salish Weaving writes that she has examined most of the blankets in North American museums and has only seen one of dog hair. So how come so many descriptions and records of wool dogs by some of the early explorers of the area? And where are all these rugs, blankets and other fabrics made from dog hair?

Grant Keddie, from the Royal BC Museum tells me that UVic is getting an electron microscope and there is an expert there is working on analyzing the hairs to try and figure out if they are goat, dog or a mixture. He suggests it is time to re-examine some of these treasures using newer technologies to help solve some of these mysteries. Grant has been interested in the wool dogs for a long time (see Keddie, 1993, Prehistoric Dogs of B.C. Wolves in Sheep Clothing, the Midden, 25 (1)3-5, February. Grant is currently researching the history and use of Coast Salish spindle whorls. He also tells me that Susan Crockford is the local authority on doggie DNA and included archaeoloigal material from RBCM collection and Tatlan Bear dogs in her research. Check out her books and publications. And here is an article on the wool dog.
Some of my questions:
  • What was the Salish wool dog? What did it look like? There is one painting by Paul Kane but is it an accurate likeness? Were wool dogs found up and down the coast of North America? Is there similar breed still in existence? What type of fibre was it? How long, how thick and how much crimp did it have?
  • Many of the blankets were made from mountain goat wool. I don't think mountain goat existed on Vancouver Island, so they must have traded for it. So how common was weaving if the wool came from dogs or mountain goats. Was there enough wool to make this a common activity or a rare activity? If it was common, well, that's a lot of mountain goat and a lot of trade. Was there enough mountain goats? Or was dog wool more common? If weaving wasn't common, then that could explain why there was such value placed on blankets. But then, what was the common fabric?
  • Where did the dye colours red, blue and black come from?  Yellows, tans. browns, oranges, greens come from a variety of possibilities (eg. wolf moss, oregon grape roots, alder bark) but a good black (salty mud?), blue or red (can alder bark really get the traditional reds?) is hard to come by.
Feel free to post any answers.
Speaking of the Royal BC Museum, they have a great exhibit which opens on Nov 20th. S’abadeb – The Gifts: Pacific Coast Salish Art and Artists. 

Edited to add a couple of related books.
Here are a couple of books you might be interested in: 
Working with Wool, a Coast Salish Legacy . Although it looks at the history of the Cowichan Sweaters, it covers the history of the wool too. And Paula Gustafson's Salish Weaving .


  1. Interesting post, Liz -- have you talked to any of the elders or folks in FN at VIU?
    Sounds like a great research project for an ambitious Fine Arts student with an interest in history and FN, doesn't it!? Maybe you should put together a team. . .
    That exhibit seems well worth a trip to Victoria, very soon . . .

  2. Hi Materfamilias, I haven't talked to any elders yet. Yes, it does seem like a great research project...or projects as there are many aspects which could be looked at. This may go on my list for retirement projects. It would be a fun one! I found someone on the Sunshine Coast who is experimenting with dyes from mushrooms and has found some reds. Trudy suggests checking out salmon egss. Maybe I'll do a blog post about fungus dyes. I tried a Boletus a few eeks ago and got a nice tan, but a red would be something else.
    If you are a RBCM Friend of the Museum, there is a special curator's talk about the exhibit on Saturday.