Saturday, December 17, 2011

Coast Salish Blankets - a Mass Spec Update

[PhotoSalish robe, 1838-1842, Wilkes Expedition,
from the Smithsonian collection, #E2124-0]
Big news in the Coast Salish weaving world. Researchers from York University analyzed nine Salish textiles (blankets, trump lines) at the Smithsonian to try to determine what fibres were used. They used a mass spectometry technique (a way to identify molecules by their mass) to solve the question 'is there dog hair in the blankets?'  
This question has been nagging at those interested in these blankets for a long time. It is a weird question. We have Coast Salish oral history telling us this is so. We have written logs/diaries by early explorers like Capt. Vancouver, also saying dog wool was used. We have artists who wrote and even painted what was probably a wool dog (Paul Kane). But we still want 'proof'. Interesting that 'proof' has a hierarchy, which I suspect goes something like this: artwork somewhere at the bottom, then oral history, written diaries and logs, official documents, and then there is scientific 'proof' at the top. And even scientific proof has hierarchies depending on what is trying to be proven.  'Proof' has layers. One layer of proof builds upon another until you have the full story of the 'ultimate truth'. Different layers take a weak proof like a myth and builds onto it. Each layer builds more certainty in the proof. Add more layers, and the myth solidifies until you have an irrefutable fact. More proof makes it more solid, like a textile.
[PhotoSalish robe, from the
 Smithsonian collection,E1891-A]
With the wool dog fibre, the proof story goes something like this:

  1. Oral history tells of the wool dog and it's wool being used in blankets and robes..
  2. Early explorers (Capt. Vancouver) records the use of dog wool in textiles.
  3. Early artists (Paul Kane) painted a dog that could be a wool dog and wrote of wool dogs, but artists license means this in not 'proof that the dog existed or looked like what Paul Kane sketched or painted'.
  4. Eye-balling the fibre in Salish blankets show at least two different fibres, but many animals, like the Mtn Goat have an outer coat and a downy coat. So even if there are two different types of fibre, it doesn't prove that they belong to two different animals.
  5. Scanning electron microscope (SEM) was used to look at fibre magnified to see differences, but it wasn't reliable for fibres that are very old as fibres can wear. A new fibre will easily show the scales on the outside but old fibres rub and wear down those scales, so it isn't conclusive when looking at the outside of the fibre. And even if the old fibre was in really good shape, we need a wool dog fibre as the baseline to compare with. How can we identify a wool dog fibre if we don't know what one looked like in the first place? No wool dog, no proof.
  6. Carbon isotope analysis - This research showed that some fibres came from an animal that ate a diet of marine food. Wool dogs were fed salmon, but carbon isotope analysis can only prove that the animal did eat marine food but can not 'prove' that the marine food was salmon, nor that animal eating the marine food is a dog. See this blog for more info.
  7. 1997, Osteometry (analyzing the bones) showed that there were two species of dog in the Pacific Northwest coast. This helped prove that there was intentional breeding to keep the two species apart. Why would they want to? There must have been a benefit in keeping the breeds pure, but what that reason was we can only surmise it was for the wool of one of the species. A forensic artist used the bones to sketch out what the dog could look like and there is a resemblance to the Paul Kane sketch and painting. But that doesn't prove it.
  8. Scanning electron microscope (SEM) analysis - split hairs. Someone came up with the idea that if SEM wasn't reliable for old worn fibres, then what about the inside of the fibre? Split the hair and then magnify it. Lo and behold, it turns out that the inner hair tells a lot and is very useful for telling fibres apart. But, you still need to know what a wool dog fibre looks like in the first place.
  9. Then, in 2006 in a dusty drawer somewhere in the Smithsonian, someone finds Mutton, a wool dog' or at least what is left of Mutton -- his pelt, which had been donated to the museum sometime. We now have a wool dog fibre! We have the baseline to compare old robes and blankets with.
  10. Back to SEM and now we can compare a Mtn Goat fibre with a wool dog fibre. Check out the picture in this blog posting.
  11. DNA analysis has been used to identify DNA in a Salish Blanket as being from a dog. Other blankets showed DNA from a Mtn. Goat. So DNA can be used to identify fibres in textiles. We are still waiting to hear more about this ongoing research at the Smithsonian.
  12. Mass spectometry - identifies dog hair in the textiles and this is the research that was recently announced.
Yes, there now seems to be 'scientific proof that dog hair was used in some Salish blankets. Or put another way, there is now 'scientific proof' that what people said, saw and wrote about did indeed exist. And, we now have a host of techniques that can be used to help identify dog hair being used in blankets.
Click here to see all my posts on the wool dog and Salish blankets.
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 . Although it is out-of-print, it is currently the best book available on the history of Coast Salish weaving. I am awaiting eagerly Leslie Tupper's book which I believe should be close to being available.

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