Northwest coast weaving

Northwest Coast Weaving

Weaving is an ancient tradition on the Northwest Coast. Practiced mostly, although not exclusively, by women, weaving produced clothing, baskets, sails and hats and was a crucial skill. Although various grasses and roots were used in weaving, by far the most common material was cedar bark. This would be stripped from the living tree in sheets, shredded with wooden or bone tools and then pounded flat. Dried in strips, the bark was then woven into large mats, shirts and tunics or, using more complicated techniques, into rain hats and baskets. The surface of the woven cedar was waterproof and lightweight and easily repaired or replaced if it became damaged.

Using paints or dyed woven designs, these baskets, mats and hats were often brightly coloured, depicting crests or legendary scenes in the same manner as carved designs. Weaving had its own motifs and decoration, following formline, but in a specialised way that fitted the medium. Weaving was passed from mother to daughter, generations of women weaving together, learning techniques and crest design as part of an ongoing educational process.

Most spectacular of the woven materials of the Northwest Coast are the Chilkat blankets, actually a robe, worn by Tlingit dancers from Southern Alaska. Woven from cedar bark and mountain goat wool, these have a complicated, blocky formline design which reveals the dancers lineage. The robes have woollen tassels, which shake and spin as the wearer dances, and are among the most important and valuable textiles from the region.

Weaving, like many other art forms, became less and less frequent as European clothing became more prevalent. By the 1930s, there were only a handful of weavers left, and it was not until the 1970s that concerted efforts were made to bring weaving back by a few of the older women in Northwest Coast communities. These efforts were successful, and now many women, and some men, up and down the coast weave, making hats, baskets and clothing once more.

Collection Information

These objects are only a part of our collections, of which there are more than 350,000 objects. This information comes from our collections database. Some of this is incomplete and there may be errors. This part of the website is also still under construction, so there may be some fields repeated or incorrectly formatted information.

The database sometimes uses language taken from historical documents to help research, which may now appear outdated and even offensive. The database also includes information on objects that are considered secret or sacred by some communities.

If you have any further information about objects in our collections or can suggest corrections to our information, please contact us: enquiry@horniman.ac.uk