Natural materials can be transformed into a variety of functional and artistic items through the process of weaving. At its simplest, weaving involves passing horizontal weft threads or strands through a series of vertical warps. As a complex art, it creates naaxein, or Chilkat robes, delicate Aleut baskets, a pair of grass socks to line mukluks or a necessary fishing net. Many examples of useful and beautiful woven objects can be seen at the UA Museum of the North.
Naaxein, Chilkat robes, were first made by Tsimshian weavers who refer to them as Gwis-halait or dancing blankets. The techniques and general style spread to Tlingit and Haida peoples. Naaxein became known worldwide as examples of one of the most complex styles of weaving in the world. The robes are made of mountain goat wool and cedar bark, found and harvested in the traditional territories of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. Men were responsible for designing the patterns and making the loom. They also provided the mountain goat hides. Women gathered cedar bark and pulled and rolled wool from the goat hides. They also interpreted the painted pattern into a two-sided symmetrical design and created the robe through weaving. Examples of naaxein, including a robe from the 1800s, can be seen in the museum’s galleries.
Chilkat weaving is totemic and designs are curvilinear. An older form of the weaving technique features geometric designs and is referred to as Ravenstail weaving. A modern Ravenstail robe is on display in the museum. “Ice Walker” was made by Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar of the T’ak dein taan (Raven) Clan, Snail House. The imagery in the robe commissioned by Grace Schaible reflected Schaible’s passion for an animal not found in Southeast Alaska, the polar bear. Colors and designs represent the Arctic Ocean, sea ice, and foot prints of polar bears. Rofkar’s signature “snail tracks” can also be found. Both naaxein and Ravenstail robes are designed for dancing. In 2015, “Ice Walker” was temporarily pulled from the art gallery to be danced for the first time on stage during the Festival of Native Arts.
Family programs at the UA Museum of the North during December will focus on weaving. There is a lot to explore about the medium and many examples on view in galleries. There are baskets made of roots, bark, grass and baleen. Some baskets are minute and others are the size of a child. There are woven tunics and fish nets. All showcase the technique and skill of the makers who used materials from their surroundings to create practical and striking objects.
Weaving has a long history in Alaska. It is a living art form usually passed from one generation to the next by women. Even though the number of weavers of some traditional Alaska Native art forms has been very low over time, culture bearers have sought to learn and encourage others to learn. Museums have served as learning labs for weavers wanting to study examples of robes, baskets, and more.
Woven objects represent personal skill, technique, and aesthetic choices. They may also embody connection to natural resources, family and community heritage, and even political and economic histories. Many Alaska Native baskets and robes are found in museums in Russia.
Unraveling a bit of weaving history and artistic process can lead to deeper appreciation of objects around us.
Jennifer Arseneau is the education and public programs manager for the UA Museum of the North. She can be reached at 474-6948.
If you go
Discover weaving at the UA Museum of the North’s hands-on programs in December. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meet in the Creativity Lab from 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 6, 13 and 20. At Junior Curators, from 2-4 p.m. Dec. 14, kids 6 and older are invited to explore weaving through hands-on investigations and crafts.
Museum-goers can also explore weaving through a gallery scavenger hunt or activities in our Family Room this month. Drop in during winter break.
The museum will host a warm-up event for Sparktacular on Dec. 31 from 5:30-9 p.m. Galleries will be open. Cookies and beverages will be for sale until 8 p.m. Fireworks at 8 p.m. Free admission.
For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.
To try at home
Weave with a cardboard loom. Notch the ends of a cardboard square evenly. Tape the end of a warp string to the loom back. Pass the string through the first notch. Carry it to a notch at the bottom and then into the adjacent notch and back up. Continue until all notches are used and you have parallel vertical lines. Tape the other end of the string to the back of the loom. Now you can weave with weft strings of your choice!
Watch weaver Evelyn Vanderhoop create a naaxein (Chilkat robe) in a short video on YouTube: tinyurl.com/qqsa4ae. Discuss the colors and patterns you see.