A Fabric’s Entirety
Ricky Tagaban kneels on his studio floor and reaches under the table, ripped jeans making it easy to maneuver. He hauls out a gray tote bin and plunges his hand into the coarse white fur that fills it: unprocessed mountain goat wool.
Strong, long guard hairs are integrated in tufts and clumps of undercoat, and a few bits of bark and dirt fleck the richly off-white wool with dark specs of forest and mountain. Tagaban rests his forearms on the edge of the bin, letting his hands land on a clump of wool. “If you have this mountain goat wool, you’ve got to pull all the guard hairs out,” he explains, reflexively beginning to do just that. “And if there’s poop, or slugs, or sticks, or moss, or grass — that all gets thrown away too,” says Tagaban. “The undercoat is the really wooly part. That’s what you want.”
Tagaban is a Chilkat weaver from Juneau with clan and lineage connections to the Juneau and Angoon areas and with a Tlingit name connection to Yakutat. He first began weaving in middle school, joining Della Cheney’s afterschool basketry program. In 2010, master weaver Clarissa Rizal invited Tagaban to become her student and to learn Chilkat weaving tradition. “I couldn’t believe she asked me.” And he felt he had to accept.
This is partly because of the honor to learn from a master weaver, but also because Chilkat tradition is generally the purview of women. “[Rizal’s] initial email said that she’d never taught men,” he recalls. But male-bodied Two-Spirit people were traditionally welcomed to the practice; they could become Chilkat weavers. Tagaban, whose gender identity is nonbinary, is thus among very few men to learn the tradition.
Two years ago, Tagaban also began performing drag. He now contributes not only to Juneau’s visual arts culture but also to the community’s performance arts. While Tagaban emphasizes that drag is “so separate” from Chilkat weaving, he also recognizes that it is his gender identity that opens space for both. “That was why Clarissa asked me to learn this weaving from her: my gender identity,” he says. “It’s informed my artistic life quite a bit.”
Currently, Tagaban’s focus lies on a collaborative weaving project with Chilkat weaver Lily Hope, a fellow Rasmuson Foundation awardee, and the daughter and student of Rizal. Tagaban and Hope are working together on a private commission, probing the complications and benefits of collaboration. For example, designs need to be symmetrical across a Chilkat blanket, but Tagaban says the pair discovered “we have two different ways of approaching a weaving.” Thus, as Tagaban explains it, “if I do a shape, then that shape is my responsibility on both sides.” The result is a deeply integrated combination of both weavers’ work: “I could work in the central panel,” says Tagaban, “but I need to do the same design element twice. And then she can work around that, and I’m working around her.”
Soon, Tagaban wants to make a whole robe entirely out of mountain goat wool. This is ambitious. Simply preparing the wool — carding it, making it into puffy roving, spinning the roving with cedar bark into warp, dyeing it — is a time- and knowledge-intensive endeavor even before the thousands of hours of weaving that follow. “There used to be people who had processed the wool,” Tagaban says. “And those would be different than the people who would weave. There was this whole network of specialists. We don’t have that anymore.”
Tagaban and the other Chilkat weavers of today do not, therefore, “get to just sit down and weave.” They are also responsible for spinning, for teaching others to spin, for dyeing, for teaching others to dye, and so on. The sheer scope and depth of knowledge necessary to successfully perform the entire process “can be really overwhelming,” Tagaban says. “But that’s what we’re left with. And it is fun. It’s still a way that we can relate to each other.” In other words, integrated teaching and learning connects a community, reaffirming principles of inter-reliance and mutuality.
Still, assimilation radically raises the stakes. Because today’s responsibilities of culture bearing, tradition bearing, teaching and social healing are no longer divided among specialists, taking on one means taking on the whole interwoven fabric. It’s a lot. And it weighs on Tagaban, but it also buoys him: “I think about erasure a lot,” he says, “and I used to feel stuck in that grief about what we’ve lost and how to keep going. But then, having these learning opportunities, that’s a real way to focus on what we still have.”
Tagaban looks at the floor. “Here’s a scrap,” he says, picking up a two-inch piece of warp that was snipped, dropped, forgotten until now. “Feel the difference when the wool is spun with bark,” he says. It’s stiffer, more structural: animal and plant combined yield a strengthened material, one with a unique capacity for precision of design.
In contrast to its predecessor, Ravenstail weaving, Chilkat weaving tradition is more abstract. Ravenstail reflects the geometric patterns developed and perfected in basketry, but “Chilkat is more distributive,” says Tagaban, “so it can be more abstract.” By this, he means that Chilkat is not always anatomically literal, and that it is more important to fill the space with design than it is to depict how an animal exists in nature. “It’s formline,” says Tagaban. “Someone would paint the pattern board and then someone else would weave it. But Ravenstail probably came from people who did spruce root baskets and all the geometry on those.”
Precision is not only aesthetically crucial; it also is necessary in making meaning. Traditionally understood as legal documents, Chilkat weavings chart a whole complex of rights and responsibilities. As the wool is spun into warp, distinct parts of the living earth spiral together, linking actual mountainsides, actual cedar stands and actual forest floors into spatial, material and spiritual reciprocity. Furthermore, as an artist interweaves warp (the vertical threads) and weft (the horizontal) into formline, clan-owned crests connect specific people to lineages grounded in particular communities and equally particular places. A Chilkat blanket thus maps place-based relationships on simultaneously conceptual and material levels.
In other words, symbiosis lies at the heart of the practice. As Tagaban puts it, “the ingredients all have their own relationship to the earth. And they are already connected in nature, but by weaving them we continue to reconnect them in our way.”