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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Xoots kudas' (Bear Chilkat shirt)

Photo: Paul Macapia

Xoots kudas' (Bear Chilkat shirt)

ca. 1860

The designs on this tunic appear in the colors traditionally used in Chilkat robes: black, blue, yellow and white. On the front, indicated by the slit at the center of the neckline, the curvilinear formline design depicts a sitting sea bear, which is recognized by its upright ears, clawed paws, feet and the fins attached to its elbows. "Formline" is the term coined by scholar Bill Holm to describe the overall design system created by artists on the northern Northwest Coast. Holm developed the terms used to identify elements within designs and the structure of the design as a whole. "Formline" is defined as "the characteristic swelling and diminishing line like figure delineating design units. These formlines merge and divide to make a continuous flowing grid over the whole decorated area, establishing the principal forms of the design." It is most often seen in carved works, but was also beautifully translated to woven forms.

Representing the bear clan crest of the owner, this tunic would be worn by a high-ranking individual in a ceremony such as a potlatch or great feast, during which individual and social privileges are displayed and confirmed in a context of speechmaking, feasting, singing and dancing.  Witnesses of the presentations of crests, names and the rights to songs, dances, and masks receive payment in the form of gifts as validation of rightful ownership.
Mountain goat wool, yellow cedar bark, wood plugs and dyes
44 x 25.5 in. (111.8 x 64.8 cm)
Gift of John H. Hauberg
Photo: Paul Macapia
Not currently on view

As I understand it, Chilkat weaving was very secretive and you barely shared it with anybody else . . . those who had it had great, great prestige.

Dorica Jackson, Chilkat weaver, Interview at SAM, July 2006

Commonly Used Materials

Mountain goats, Kenai Peninsula Borough County, Alaska
Chamaecyparis nootkatensis (Yellow Cedar) bark
Tsuga heterophylla (Western Hemlock) bark
Letharia vulpina (also Evernia vulpina, "wolf moss")

Origins of Chilkat Weaving

Accounts of visitors to the Northwest Coast in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries describe woven robes worn along the coast from Alaska to southern Vancouver Island. Despite the robes' more recent association with the Tlingit, scholars believe that the twined technique utilized by weavers of what are now known as Chilkat robes originated with Tsimshian women weavers in northern British Columbia, south of the Tlingit territory. The style of weaving in this tunic might reflect a combination of an earlier geometric style of weaving, known as Raven's Tail, with the formline design system. Knowledge of the technique may have come from intermarriage with Tlingit women farther north. Because so many textiles were produced by Chilkat women weavers, whose villages lay at the head of what is now known as Lynn Canal, the weavings came to be known as "Chilkat." In the Tlingit language, the term used for the robes is naaxein, which has been interpreted to mean "the fringe around the body," referring to the sway of the fringe when the robe is worn by a dancer. The same weaving techniques are used in creating tunics, leggings and aprons. Tunics such as this one might be worn in place of an apron, along with a robe, although they are much more rare than full robes. 

T'chua a Chief of Queen Charlotte's Island in Lat.52..12 N, ca. 1792-1800. Sigismund Bacstrom
Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Other Works in SAM's Collection with Formline Design

Yéil X'eenh (Raven Screen), ca. 1810, Tlingit, Kadyisdu.axch, 79.98
s'ix' (bowl), ca. 1850, Tlingit, 85.355
Side view, 85.355
Photo: Susan Cole
Keet Shagoon (Killer Whale), 2003, Preston Singletary, 2003.12
Soul Catcher, 2000, Preston Singletary, 2000.53

Chilkat Weaving: A Collaboration Between Men and Women

Pattern Board, ca. 1880, Native American, Tlingit, 85.357
Men traditionally painted designs onto wood boards, and women weavers translated the designs into woven form. Just over half the design would be painted on the board because one side of the overall design is a mirror image of the other. These pattern boards were passed down through generations of weavers, so similar patterns appear on multiple robes and tunics. This pattern board appears to have been used in the creation of the robe below. Today, contemporary weavers, both female and male, create their own designs, and many use paper rather than wood for the template. Artists also copy designs from older weavings as a way to learn various techniques.
Reverse, 85.357
The reverse side of this pattern board reveals the beginnings of another pattern. Interestingly, the artist appears to have been working from the bottom to the top of the design. The work of women weavers began long before the actual weaving. Their role included collecting and processing materials used in the weaving, including mountain goat wool, cedar bark, and natural dyes. After women removed the inner down of soft wool from goatskins provided by the men, the spinning process could begin. The fiber for the warp is spun with yellow cedar bark for strength, and the fiber for the weft is spun from wool in varying degrees of thickness for use in weaving different parts of the design.

View a Map of Tlingit and Tsimshian Territories

Map of Northwest Coast, showing Tlingit and Tsimshian territories
© Seattle Art Museum

Other Chilkat Weaving in SAM's Collection

NaXine (Chilkat robe), ca. 1860, Haida, 91.1.79

Weaving Technique

Weavers use a loom constructed of two upright elements and one crossbeam from which the warp strands hang freely. The weaver begins from the top of the textile, working downward, moving the crossbeam up as the weaving grows. Weavers developed techniques that made it possible to depict in woven form the curvilinear formline style that is seen in carved and painted works. A technique called the "drawstring join" enabled the weaver to work on one section, creating the curved forms, and then join that section to another, rather than weave across the entire width of the textile. Braided twining enables weavers to form the curvilinear shapes because the wefts could travel over the surface of the weaving at any angle. Looking at the handling of the formline design on this tunic in particular, Dorica Jackson, a Chilkat weaver, commented that "the fact that she [the weaver] was able to get such nice shapes shows that she was a really good weaver."
Woman weaving a Chilkat blanket, Alaska, ca. 1905, Winter & Pond Studio
Seattle Historical Society Collection, Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, Gift of Mrs. William E. Boeing, 1953; acc. no. 1773


Exhibition HistorySeattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Hauberg Collection - Parsons Gallery, August 22, 1985 - March 16, 1986

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Native Visions: Northwest Coast Art, 18th Century to the Present, October 18, 1998 - January 10, 1999
Published ReferencesThe Spirit Within: Northwest Coast Native Art from the John H. Hauberg Collection, Seattle Art Museum, 1995, pg. 64

Brown, Steven C., Native Visions: Evolution in Northwest Coast Art from the Eighteenth Through the Twentieth Century, Seattle Art Museum, 1998, pg. 126

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures, London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007, p. 30

Seattle Art Museum respectfully acknowledges that we are on Indigenous land, the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people. We honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future.

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