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Chilkat Dye Research

White/Undyed Materials

Sources of Wool

Harvesting and processing materials is time consuming, skilled, and spiritual work. Mountain goats often provided the wool in historical times. Sometimes goat hides and bark were sent inland to be processed in exchange for coastal products. Today weavers often use Merino or Finn sheep yarn or wool top.


Bark and wool are thigh-spun together by hand to make the vertical Chilkat warps. (Ravenstail weavings do not contain bark). Yellow cedar bark is preferred, as it is more flexible and less woody than red cedar bark. The ratio of wool to bark tends to be higher in robes made more recently, easily seen in the warp fringe. The size of the warp impacts the level of detail the weaver can achieve and how much time the weaving will take. Size is indicated by “ends per inch.”


Detail can also be controlled by the size of the wefts. Today’s weavers often thigh spin the vertical warp by hand and use store-bought yarn for the horizontal wefts. A right-handed weaver will spin yarns with a Z-twist, while commercial yarns are typically S-twist. Sometimes weavers will hand-dye their weft yarns, which are scoured clean with soap, then the dye colors are “fixed” to the fiber with alum or urine or other mordant.

Tools and Techniques

In addition to pattern boards, weavers use pattern templates and measuring tools to ensure the weaving is balanced and symmetrical. Sections of the weaving are connected with drawstrings of sinew or cotton. The tail ends of the yarn are needled up into the back of the weaving.

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Case Contents

From the exhibition The Spirit Wraps Around You (May 8–October 9, 2021 at the Alaska State Museum):

  1. Clump of raw mountain goat wool including guard hair and debris from Sara Lee.
  2. Dish of mountain goat wool roving (with a twisted bit). Roving is the cleaned wool with guard hairs removed and the fibers aligned, but before it has been twisted to make yarn.
  3. Dish of Finn Top sheep wool roving. Finn is a little like merino wool, but a different sheep. From Lily Hope’s thigh-spinning class.
  4. Strips of yellow cedar bark, already boiled, from Lily Hope.
  5. Shredded yellow cedar bark (lighter color), ready for thigh-spinning together with wool roving to make warps. From Anna Brown Ehlers.
  6. Shredded red cedar bark (darker, more woody, but sometimes used) from Lily Hope’s thigh-spinning class.
  7. Ball of thick Ravenstail Warp: 6 epi (ends per inch) from Kay Field Parker.
  8. Ball of medium Ravenstail Warp: 8 epi from Kay Field Parker.
  9. Ball of narrow Ravenstail Warp: 10 epi from Kay Field Parker.
  10. Pieces of thick Chilkat Warp: 6 epi (contains bark, unlike Ravenstail) from Kay Field Parker.
  11. Pieces of medium Chilkat Warp: 8 epi from Kay Field Parker.
  12. Pieces of narrow Chilkat Warp: 10 epi from Kay Field Parker.
  13. Metal sewing gauge from Lily Hope with warp wrapped around it to demonstrate the idea of ends per inch.
  14. Pin Cushion, quilting pins, and large blunt needles from Lily Hope.
  15. Scissors.
  16. Sinew and coated cotton drawstrings from Lily Hope.
  17. Bar of Fels Naptha soap to scour (clean) the wool.
  18. Tin of alum to mordant the wool. Mordants are chemicals that help hold dye molecules to the fibers. Alum from the grocery store is the preference of many weavers because it is not toxic like metallic mordants chrome and tin.
  19. II-B-915M ball of undyed weft.
  20. II-B-915 Several cedar bark templates of formline shapes, from a larger collection of shapes. The weft and bark templates are from a larger weaver’s kit donated to the museum by Helen George in 1959. Ethnohistorical research from Zachary Jones suggests her parents were Mary Dick and George Peterson, both of Klukwan. Prior to the 1910 census, almost everyone in Haines and Klukwan went only by their Tlingit names, so identification is tentative pending further research. It would be helpful to know the Tlingit name of Helen George’s mother. Many other items from this weaver’s kit can be seen in the clan house display in the galleries.

All unattributed materials listed come from the Alaska State Museum conservation lab and include the after-hours activities of conservator Ellen Carrlee.