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The Turkmen Asmalyk and the Chilkat Dancing Blanket
by R. John Howe
One of the oldest forms of essay question is “compare and contrast.” This is a “compare and contrast” salon. Its origins for me began one Saturday at The Textile Museum, when David Fraser, the current head of the Board of Directors at the Museum gave a “rug morning” program on weft twining, about which he is perhaps the reigning expert (See Fraser, 1989). As part of this program, Fraser displayed a variety of items done either wholly or partly with weft twining. One of them looked like this:
As a Turkmen collector, I was immediately struck with how similar this weaving seemed to be to the Turkmen asmalyk.
I did not pursue a comparison, however, until recently, when during a trip into the American Midwest, I encountered a copy of a book by Cheryl Samuel (1982) that stimulated my interest to look further. It turns out that the standard work on the Chilkat dancing blanket was done by George Emmons (1907, 1908) but Samuels seems to draw on him in ways that makes many of his indications visible through her volume. I have not, to date, consulted Emmons directly.
In addition, it turns out, there is quite a bit of information on the Chilkat dancing blanket on the Internet and I have mined some of that for this essay as well. In this photo-essay, I will sometime quote generously from Samuels or occasionally from some internet sources and will insert quotes when I do. Since this is a conversational rather than a scholarly enterprise, I will not include specific source footnotes on these quotes. I have provided a bibliography at the end that includes the sources of my quotes. I am also not going to include sources of the asmalyk images used here, but can likely indicate where a given one came from if someone asks.
The first thing one tends to notice about the Turkmen asmalyk when compared to the Chilkat dancing blanket is that they are of a similar shape and size. Both tend to have very similar pentagonal shapes, although there are some precursors of the Chilkat dancing blankets were rectangular
and some Turkmen asmalyks that have more than five sides.
The most prominent initial apparent difference one encounters, when comparing these two textiles is that the Turkmen asmalyk was/is woven by Turkmen nomads in western Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea, while the Chilkat dancing blanket was/is woven by American Indians living near and in cedar rain forests on the coast of southeast Alaska.
“…Chilkat blankets were the specialty of the Chilkat tribe of the Tlingit, whose territory was at the mouth of the Chilkat River... This group refined the style to its highest level in the late nineteenth century, but it had initially been developed among the Tsimshian-speaking people who lived along the Skeena and Nass Rivers on the mainland and had easy access to mountain goats in their hunting territories. ”
Chilkat dancing blankets tend to be a little more than 150 cm wide. Asmalyks can reach 150 cm, but are often narrower and some instances of them are noticeably so.
There are also some quite small Turkmen weavings with this same pentagonal shape, and which often carry the same designs seen on asmalyks, that are not asmalyks at all, but rather knee decorations for camels.
Dimensions are not usually given for published Chilkat dancing blankets likely, in part, because they are not, despite their name, used as “blankets,” but rather as robes worn about the shoulders, and for this reason do not seem to vary much in either width or height.
The Chilkat dancing blanket and the Turkmen asmalyk are both ceremonial textiles.
We have photographic evidence indicating that asmalyks were woven in pairs and placed, pointed end up, on the sides of camels in Turkmen wedding processions.
Chilkat dancing blankets were/are worn, over the shoulders of important people, pointed end down and behind them, on special occasions, especially at “potlatch” gatherings (about which more later).
Both the Chilkat dancing blanket and the Turkmen asmalyk are decorated with areas/additions that hang below the woven area. On the asmalyk, banks and rows of tassels are often added on the unpointed bottom.
On the pointed bottom of the Chilkat dancing blanket, actual and added warps combine in a long hanging fringe.
This is the end of Part I of this salon essay. Please go on to Part 2.
Discussion Proceed to Part 2 Proceed to Part 3