Kay Field Parker has been a lifelong crafter, but when she took a class in spruce root basketry at the University of Alaska Southeast in 1987, she found it increasingly difficult — and not nearly as intriguing as the weaving class she kept seeing.
“My class was going along and I started noticing the class across the hall was a Ravenstail class. And as the weeks went by, my basket got uglier and their weaving got more beautiful and I was hooked.”
Ravenstail is the precursor to the Chilkat weaving tradition that creates the button blanket robes bearing the clan symbols of the Tlingit, Haida and other Northwest Coast populations. Chilkat is known for being one of the most complex weaving traditions in the world, unique in its ability to create circular forms. Within that style are echoes of the even older tradition, from the mid-1700s and earlier displaying even more complexity.
Echoes were about all that was left. That is until the 1980s when fiber artist Cheryl Samuel started researching Chilkat robes. The more she studied, the more she uncovered references to the earlier weaving practice from which Chilkat developed. It was more geometric, with strong, linear patterns, whereas Chilkat designs are curvilinear and totemic. Known until then as the Northern
Geometric weaving style, Samuel coined the term Ravenstail and set about studying all the examples she could find.
Since then, Ravenstail has experienced a resurgence, particularly in Alaska. Parker, who lives in Juneau, is one of the most noted practitioners in the state, and a display of her work is the spring art exhibit at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
She gave a presentation to open the show last month, complete with a weaving demonstration.
Ravenstail is a laboriously slow process. An apron can take Parker six months to complete — even now, with her 20 years of experience and the convenience of modern materials.
The original Ravenstail weavers used the undercoat of mountain goat hair, which is softer than even the best merino yarn used today, but required pulling away layers of guard hair to get at the fiber underneath. The weavers made a two-ply, very fine, tightly twisted yarn that didn’t compact when woven.
“The materials were all spun on their thigh. As a roving, as you move it down your leg you’re twisting the individual strands, as you move it back up you’re plying it together. And with that motion, you create about an inch of material,” Parker said.
Along with the natural color, the yarn was also dyed black or yellow. Yellow came from a moss that grows on spruce trees, but not on the coast where the weavers lived. It was a trade item from east of the mountains. Black was dyed with the inner bark of hemlock trees, but could only be collected in the spring. Best not to run out of yarn mid-project.
Ravenstail is a twining method, where the horizontal weft yarn spirals around the vertical warps and other wefts. In regular weaving, the wefts are plaited under and over the warps. In Chilkat, the designs are done in small weaving areas that are tied together into a complete piece. Ravenstail robes are worked in horizontal rows progressing from top to bottom, with borders added last and finished with various embellishments, like abalone or deer hooves.
“Ravenstail has a lot of different techniques to it,” Parker said. “There are actually seven different techniques that they use in this style of weaving. Whereas with the Chilkat, there are only three techniques that are used. So this was very highly developed.”
Several members of the local fiber arts guild attended Parker’s demonstration, eager to see the patterns develop for themselves.
Lee Coray-Ludden, of Clam Gulch, visited the show with her daughter, Sarah Goodwin, of Sterling, and could barely contain herself at just looking.
“I said, ‘Oh my God! I just want to touch it.’ She’s policing me, ‘Don’t touch it, Mom. See the sign? Don’t touch it.’ But because I work with fiber I want to touch it,” Coray-Ludden said. “That’s the beauty of fiber arts. You’ve got the abalone, you’ve got the metal, you’ve got the hooves, you’ve got the different fibers in here, and fur, all coming together to make this exquisite beauty.”
She was awed by the intricacy as well as the artistry, and the thought that it came from people over 200 years ago.
“When a culture gets to this level of art form, that’s a very sophisticated culture, and that’s what the people of Southeast have,” Coray-Ludden said. “Yet, when the Russians came in and the Americans came in, we didn’t acknowledge that. And, so, to see this, I think, is wonderful.”
Parker’s Ravenstail creations are on display at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center through May.