Bigger Than Words Can Say: Weaving Culture, Family and Legacy
In a 2018 Facebook post, weaver Lily Hope said that one square inch of Chilkat weaving can take three hours to create. Of course, that’s when the weaver already has her materials prepared. Hope grew up immersed in the art. Her mother, Clarissa Rizal, was a master weaver and one of the last students of Jenny Thlunaut, a Tlingit weaver from Klukwan born in 1891. Hope said that when she was little, she wanted to spend time with her mom, “so I ended up doing all the things that she was doing and didn’t realize she was training me in the traditional way.”
Chilkat weaving originates from the Nisga’a people at the Nass River, in British Columbia. It is practiced today by indigenous Nisga’a, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada. “The oldest robe in a museum dates back to 1794, but we’ve been weaving them for much longer,” says Hope.
Hope remembers her mother and Jenny Thlunaut talking about the intensity of the work. “Jenny would nudge my mother and say, ‘You! Take care of your husband! You! Keep your house clean!’ And it wasn’t until Jenny passed away and my mother was really weaving a Chilkat blanket that she realized there’s an obsession. There’s a drive to finish the weaving as quickly as possible. That once it’s in your hands you just want to keep weaving.”
Traditionally, the warp, or vertical threads, are hand spun — not with a wheel or a spindle, but by “thigh spinning,” a method where the warp is spun and plied simultaneously. The fiber is made from mountain goat hair with a core of cedar bark. Both materials are painstaking to harvest and prep for spinning. The weft — the horizontal threads that create the design — are often dyed these days with commercial dyes. Traditional dyes include bark, lichens and copper.
Through the Native Arts and Culture Foundation, Hope has taken on an apprentice, Anastasia Hobson George. “My apprentice and I will be dyeing. But once the dyes are done, we can take samples and bring them to the Alaska State Museum and they are bringing scientific devices up from Portland to analyze old robes, and they’ll be able to tell what kind of materials were used to make them.”
That feeling of intensity experienced by her mother and Thlunaut now is familiar to Hope as well. “There’s a bitterness that happens, every single time I’ve started a new project, I feel like, ‘gee, I don’t really want to be around you, I just want to go to my loom.’ ” She acknowledges that all art has levels of obsession, but she has a keen awareness that “I could really lose things that I love for this weaving.”
And yet, when she talks about the source of her inspiration, she circles back to her family. Her current work, a commissioned Chilkat blanket, is a representation of her nuclear family. And where does she say she often gets new ideas? “Date nights.” On evenings out with her husband, the poet Ishmael Hope, she says, “He gets poetry ideas. I get weaving ideas.”
Hope didn’t consider herself a weaver until recently. She was born in Juneau and moved to the Southwest when she was 11. When she was 21, she returned to Alaska to work in tourism and go to college. She studied theater at the University of Alaska Southeast and performed professionally at Perseverance Theatre and elsewhere. She became a storyteller. While she took weaving courses in school, she thought of herself as a performer.
Around the time she was beginning her family, weaving came back into her life in a big way. Her mother arranged for her to create a robe, a commission from the Portland Art Museum. To Hope, the weight of the commission felt both shocking and natural. “She had hundreds of students, she could have given it to anyone.” She began the robe, and when she was about halfway through, her mother passed away after a battle with cancer.
Hope continued the robe and through the process began to feel more comfortable wearing the title of weaver. “I don’t want to say it came to me as an accident, or that I didn’t have a choice. But I didn’t realize that I was choosing it all along. I didn’t understand that this would be my life.”
Unlike theater, weaving is solitary, and for Hope, it can be lonely. She’s found a creative remedy for the long hours alone. “I prefer to weave in public, to engage with people while I’m working. I have people around me while I’m weaving, because it’s motivating. It fills my cup more than just sitting in front of a loom alone.”
And she teaches. Hope was able to teach with her mother before she died. She now offers weaving workshops to adults and youth. Hope notes that at any one time in the last few generations there have only been about a dozen master Chilkat weavers at most. Right now, she says there are only around four elders teaching weaving, and she feels compelled to study with all of them.
Keeping Chilkat weaving alive, Hope says, is more than capturing or recording the information needed to create a finished piece. “It’s bigger than words can say. I don’t fully understand the gravity of it, not just the retaining of knowledge, but that daily practice of it.” Hope’s practice continues with weaving, teaching, studying and actively sharing the skills and stories that are part of each shape and pattern she creates.