Posted by R. John Howe on 11-05-2003 02:00 PM:


Dear folks -

(There are a large number of internet links used in this salon and in the related discussion. The internet is dynamic and you may find that some links are “dead” if you are reading this after this salon closed. I would suggest that if you encounter a dead link that you look for the general subject of it and put that term into a search engine. That should get you a current set of sites, if not the precise one that is dead. The terms most likely useful for such searches are “Chilkat dancing blanket,” “Salish weaving,” Peruvian weaving,” Paracas weaving,” “Paracas mantle,” and “Clarissa Hudson.”)

This has been a salon triggered by my encounter with a Chilkat dancing blanket, a textile that shows a striking similarity in size and shape to the Turkmen asmalyk.

Closer examination, as Marvin Amstey pointed out early, revealed that the differences between these two textiles are greater than their initial seeming similarities.

They are woven by people who lived a great distance from one another, using distinctive designs, materials, and methods. It may be that there are some ancient common sources, but we were unable to identify them.

We talked at some length about the fact that the Chilkat dancing blanket is made from wool taken from dead animals and that this sort of sheep’s wool is much disparaged among rug collectors and scholars. With the informed assistance of such folks as Chuck Wagner, Michael Bischof and Steve Price, we seemed to conclude that it is the methods used to remove the wool, rather than the fact that the wool is taken from a dead animal that seems to affect wool quality. Michael noted that the Chilkats seem to have developed a “softer” method of wool removal from the dead goats that perhaps caused less damage to the quality of the wool.

I speculated that the use of the clay in this process and the fact that clay was also used in some “cleaning” methods, might also have worked to give this seemingly very soft wool that would have a tendency to mat, more fiber “definition” in weaving.

In this same thread we tried to achieve a more precise understanding of how and at what points dye is taken into wool fibers.

In another longish thread, I invited evaluation of the sort of abstraction the Chilkats used in their designs and this led to a broader discussion of them. Steve Price pointed out early and in a separate thread that the “distributed abstraction” of Chilkat designs was of a pretty sophisticated sort, analogous to Mercator’s projection of the round geography of the earth onto a flat map.

In part of this thread, I invited evaluation of three different Chilkat dancing blanket designs, but that task never took hold. Instead, it triggered indications by Filiberto Boncompangni and Wendel Swan that they did not find the Chilkat dancing blanket designs attractive, in part because of their dearth of color. We went on to criticize the ambiguity of the Chilkat formline designs. Often, it was not clear what animal was being portrayed and some of the research seemed to report and even the Chilkats themselves interpreted particular designs differently.

We looked for analogous designs and Sue Zimmerman suggested that Mayan hieroglyphics held some promise. We looked at some of these a bit, but couldn’t identify the “distributed” character of the Chilkat graphics in the Mayan designs. Sue then explained further, indicating that the Mayan hieroglyphics are in fact “Qigong medical diagrams charting the metabolic pathways of Qi energy." Some of us were skeptical, and, although there are indications that some scholars see many of the ubiquitous circles in Chilkat designs as depictions of “ball and socket” joints of the animal, I could find no indication that the Chilkat designs were a similar species of medical diagram.

Wendel Swan, then suggested that he thought he had seen some designs in ancient Peruvian textiles that resembled those on the Chilkat dancing blankets. I happened onto a book on ancient Peruvian pottery that permitted an indirect exploration of this possibility. It did seem that the pottery of Peru’s south coast (the Paracas peninsula) did exhibit designs that had some features of “distributed abstraction,” albeit of a milder form. And these items of pottery were taken from grave sites in which there were also textiles (Wendel had mentioned “mantles” a kind of shoulder robe). Filiberto, pressed for what the textiles looked like and we found some instances on the internet, about which he concluded that they did not seem to exhibit the designs that occurred on the pottery.

In another short, but important, thread, I remembered that Marla Mallett had indicated in her book that “weft twining” is not “weaving,” closely defined, and I asked to be made clearer about this distinction. Marla, kindly, joined the discussion to indicate that this was one of those instances in which it was important to focus on the “process” rather than on what the yarns in a completed textile looked like. That the process of weft twining was very distinctive from that of weaving, when one undertook it, and that such distinctions needed to be retained in our technical descriptions. Some kind of “shed” must be created, she indicated, for “weaving” to occur.

Someone had suggested to me in a pre-salon conversation that the Chilkats might have used dog hair as well as goat hair in their weavings. I tried to explore this possibility and found that a tribe to the south, the Salish, did use dog hair and in fact bred and kept a small dog for this purpose. We were able to find indications that dog hair occurred in Salish “nobility blankets,” but were unable to find any indications that the Chilkats also used it. It was noted that the Salish had a monopoly on trade in the entire area and it is possible that a Salish trader could have offered a Chilkat weaver dog hair.

A most gratifying event occurred toward the end of this salon. Clarissa Hudson, one of the few living weavers of Chilkat textiles, including the dancing blanket, joined our discussion with some informed comment. Among other things, she corrected the story we had conveyed of the likely origin of the Chilkat weavings, indicating that she feels that “Chilkat weaving originated from the Nass River in B.C. The tribe of people who inhabited the Nass River, and continue to do so today, are called the Nisga'a.” At the end, I provided some additional links on Clarissa Hudson’s work and background.

My thanks to those who put up with and who contributed to this salon, which focused on an odd “comparison” and on a textile removed from the sort that are usually the focus of our discussions here.


R. John Howe