Walking into Sheldon Jackson museum on a quiet afternoon, I find Tlingit weaver Laine Rinehart in front of his nearly five foot loom. You wouldn’t know it today, but he’s working on the beginnings of a traditional Tlingit robe.
“So this is a basic stitch of Ravenstail or Chilkat weaving. It’s a two-strand twine, and in this particular case I’m doing a skip-stitch pattern called ‘diamond’s eye’ and this will go into the border,” he said, pointing to the yards of black, yellow and beige yarn that hang from the loom.
On the wall behind him hangs a form line sketch, a collaboration with Tsimshian artist Abel Ryan. The drawing, which is inspired by the artist’s own life, will constitute the main design of the robe.
“The design kind of was inspired by an encounter I had with my clan crest,” he said. “My Tlingit name is Neech Yannagut Yéi, and I am of the Teeyhíttaan clan from Wrangell, Alaska . I was kind of going through, you know, I guess I would more or less, say, a divorce from my partner,” he said. “And for some reason, frogs appear to me when it seems fortuitous for them to, and so I was riding my bike out the road. And I was reaching down to pick a nagoon berry. And as I was reaching down to pick it, like you could see the moss kind of rustling, like little heads of baby frogs started to pop up from underneath the the foliage around the berry. ”
As part of the museum’s Alaska Native artist-in-residence program, Rinehart often works seven-hour days graphing and weaving his robe. But even at this pace, he says the process is laborious.
“It took about two-and-a-half months of spinning the materials for this much work, and then it’ll probably take, if I were to work on it full time, about a year, upwards of a year to weave it. But you know, we all have our daily lives as well,” he said. “And I have a job outside of my art. You know, this could probably go upwards of like two to three years for me to complete this.”
Born to a Taos Pueblo mother and a Tlingit father, Rinehart considers himself a mix of cultures, but he most closely identifies with his Tlingit background. It was at a Tlingit celebration that he first fell in love with Chilkat weaving, a traditional style marked by its curved lines and simple color palette.
“There was a woman on stage with the Shx’at Ḵwáan dancers,” he said. “So that’s the Wrangell dance group, and she had this Ravenstail robe, and I guess, that had been one of the first ones woven in the community for quite some time.”
Amazed by the beautiful movement and craftsmanship of the robe, Rinehart decided to enroll in a weaving class later that summer. Despite being one of only a handful of male weavers in a historically female art form, Rinehart insists he’s never felt out of place in the weaving community. Instead, he finds solace in his female counterparts.
“It seems like a very much like a woman space. And it really is a beautiful thing. Just to think about that. And I feel at home within the weaving community definitely never felt uncomfortable. I’ve always felt absolutely supported by my female mentors,” he said.
When he began this journey 15 years ago, Rinehart says he never could have imagined creating a full-sized robe. But while weaving did not always come easily to him, it’s always felt right. For him, weaving has become not only a physical but a spiritual process.
“It’s just like, absolutely, like this meditative process,” he said.
It’s through this process he engages with his his lineage and his Tlingit identity.
“You know, I’ve never really experienced anything quite like, and, and it kind of comes in like waves — like waves of like, inspiration, like waves of like, feeling like you’re you’re tapping into some sort of ancestral force that’s like, beyond yourself. And you know, it’s just a beautiful feeling,” he said.