A Weaver's tale

Kay Parker sustains the traditional forms of ravenstail weaving

Posted: Monday, August 18, 2003

The intricacies of Kay Parker's weaving life are evident as one looks around her shoreside house, scattered with in-progress examples of ancient Native ravenstail robes, bibs and bags of her own handiwork.

"I've always been interested in handwork," said Parker. "I've always knitted and sewed and spun and done those things."

A ravenstail weaver for 13 years, Parker experiments with new weaving patterns and ideas, helps produce the quarterly newsletter "Raven's Tale," presides over the Ravenstail Weavers' Guild and teaches ravenstail courses at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Her pieces imitate the styles originally woven by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Aleut and Eskimo peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the Gulf of Alaska.

Born and raised in Juneau, Parker attended Monterey Pacific College for two years, earning an associate's degree in data processing. From 1971 to 1974, she owned and operated The Leather Shop downtown, selling custom-made leather clothes.

Parker is a coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Multiple Listing Service and executive officer for Southeast Border Realtors. But being a bookkeeper, managing organizations, maintaining databases and doing reports is half of Parker's story.

Ravenstail pioneer Cheryl Samuel motivated Parker to learn to weave in 1990.

Parker wove handbags at first, which is routine for beginners. She said beginners take about 40 hours to finish their first bag.

A bib might take Parker several weeks, three to four hours a day, but a robe requires even more patience. It took Parker and six other women about a year and a half to complete their "Hands Across Time" ravenstail robe for the Alaska State Museum in 1993.

"It can sometimes take you a half an hour just to weave one row all the way across," said Parker. "Then you have a bunch of strands in between that you have to manipulate, so it might take you another half an hour to manipulate all those strands."

Parker said the old ravenstail robes were woven in two styles, compact or "space-twined." Compact weaving consists of 24 to 30 rows per inch, while space-twined weaving has eight. Weaving a space-twined robe takes about six months of working, 20 hours a week. Parker said one of her compact robes took her several years.

Parker remains faithful to the traditional forms of ravenstail weaving. Those characteristics include black, white and yellow patterns of zig-zags, stripes and blocks - very geometric designs.

"Most of the things I've woven are all traditional patterns," said Parker. "They're all patterns from the old robes."

According to Parker, ravenstail weaving was virtually nonexistent for nearly 200 years. It evolved into the more totemic Chilkat weaving prior to the Alaska Natives' first contact with Europeans in the early 1800s.

When the first explorers came to the Northwest coast, Alaska Natives were wearing ravenstail and Chilkat robes, but very few people knew how to weave ravenstail.

"Once the weavers learned how to weave circles and curved lines (as found in the Chilkat weavings), they were no longer interested in these (ravenstail) robes, and they quit weaving them," said Parker.

The rare ravenstail weavings were reborn in 1980, after Samuel, a Canadian artist, was inspired to weave the perfect circle. She found that the Tlingits were the only people in the world who could accomplish the task.

In 1981, Samuel traveled to Russia, where four of the six original ravenstail robes exist on display, to study the remaining fragments. When Samuel completed her research, she emulated what she had seen, weaving the first robe that had been made in more than 200 years.

"These are all that exists in the world for us to learn from about ravenstail," said Parker, holding a copy of Samuel's second book, "The Raven's Tail."

Parker has remained curious, knowledgeable and sensitive to the ravenstail art.

She teaches a range of people, from university students to Alaska Natives to senior members of the children's dancing group All Nations Children. She has been working with the children's group since 1998.

"It's not really very difficult, it's just a matter of sitting and making your hands figure out how to do it," she said. "I like the way it involves all of your senses. You're working with your hands and feeling the material, and your eyes are enjoying the pattern that you're creating."

Kim Andree can be reached at nrclerk@juneauempire.com.



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