Ravenstail revival revisited at city museum

Weavers demonstrate technique once on the verge of extinction

Posted: Friday, March 02, 2001

Just 20 years ago, an ancient weaving technique used by Southeast Alaska Natives was on the brink of extinction.

Known as Ravenstail weaving, the style creates bold geometric patterns. It has been revived thanks in part to a cadre of Juneau weavers. This weekend, the Juneau Ravenstail Weaving Guild will showcase their artwork, demonstrate their techniques and teach beginners their methods. The activities will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. All ages are welcome and admission is free.

"They're one of the most prolific groups around. They're keeping the weaving going, teaching and working with other communities," said Jane Lindsey, assistant curator of education and public programs at the museum.

Lindsey said several artists will be weaving and a number of completed pieces and works in progress will be displayed, including robes and leggings.

Weaver Mary Lou King will use ordinary materials to teach the basic technique, called twining. Ravenstail weaving does not use a shuttle or loom.

"It's a really neat way you can teach children, or anyone who is interested, the basic twining technique," Lindsey said. "It's also the twining you do in basketry."

Weaver Marcia Stier said Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving are all done with the fingers. She's woven robes and other pieces, and will have a robe on display.

Stier said most of the weavers in the guild learned from a woman named Cheryl Samuel. About 20 years ago Samuel began a revival of the Ravenstail style, which predates the wellknown Chilkat weaving style. Samuel, who now lives in Alberta, Canada, still teaches weaving and is the author of "The Ravenstail," a book about the history of the technique.

Samuel wrote that published accounts of European voyages on the coast in the 1700s and early 1800s reveal that Ravenstail was being worn by the Tlingit, Haida, and by the Pacific Eskimo inhabitants of Prince William Sound, the Chugach.

She goes on in her book to say, "The robes come from a time before Chilkat weaving, a time when expert basket makers turned their talents to working with wool."

The Ravenstail style was virtually abandoned when Chilkat weaving became popular among the master Tlingit weavers in the 1800s. Only six Ravenstail robes are left in the world, and four are in Russia, taken there in the 19th century. Samuel examined these few remaining robes, as well as a few remaining fragments of robes.

Almost a mile of hand-spun yarn can go into a Ravenstail robe. The yarn is created using an unusual technique called thigh spinning, which also predates Russian contact with Northwest Coast Native people.

"It's a whole separate skill and takes a lot of practice to make it look pretty. It takes time," Stier said.

In addition to teaching and perpetuating the craft, the Juneau Ravenstail Weaving Guild also maintains a warp bank. The warp is the horizontal aspect to the weaving, the long pieces of yarn that are twined against the vertical weft. Stier said there are two women on the Pacific Northwest Coast who have mastered thigh spinning, and they create most of the warp material for Alaska weavers.

"The guild tries to always keep supplies on hand; some for Chilkat, some for Ravenstail, some thinner, some thicker warps," Stier said. "They use merino wool. If someone wanted to weave a pair of leggings, that takes maybe 100 yards. A robe will take 1,000 to 1,300 yards, and that's over a dollar a yard. It takes a while a for a spinner to spin that quantity."

Stier will not be at the museum Saturday, but will teach a design workshop there March 10 and 17 called "Patterns in the Neighborhood: Some Thoughts about Design."

Stier said the workshop is appropriate for artists with a variety of interests, and will explore ways to find patterns and designs in the surrounding environment for quilting, painting, basketry, beading, jewelry and weaving.

"I'll be talking about some of the designs I've created. It'll be a sharing time. It's not a lecture at all," she said. "It's not just for Ravenstail weaving. Pretty much any artistic field, you can adapt my ideas to."

For more information, and to register for Stier's workshop, call 586-3572. Registration is not needed for this weekend's Ravenstail activities, and admission to the city museum is free Saturday as part of the monthly "First Saturday's Free" program.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.

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