In the second half of the nineteenth century a full ceremonial costume for an eminent Tlingit person in the northern Northwest Coast area of North America comprised a Chilkat blanket, an apron, a headdress or crest hat, and a raven rattle.
The main occasion for such ornate attire was the potlatch. Potlatches are festivals of elaborate ritual and gift-giving, which, following missionary pressure, were banned in both Canada and the United States by 1900. They have been revived in recent decades.
Chilkat blanket designs – named after the Chilkat Tlingit tribe, whose women were the principal weavers – were copied from a painted pattern board. Many surviving examples share the same general design seen here, with a central face, two profiles in the side panels and eye-like features throughout. Although the central panel has also been likened to a diving whale seen from above, the iconography is unknown.
The warp is the twisted inner bark of the yellow cedar, and the weft and fringes are mountain-goat wool. The weaving and dyeing of a single blanket could have been a six-month labour.
Facts & figures
‘Chilkat’ blanket. North America, Northwest Coast: Tlingit/Chilkat. Late 19th century. Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 667.
Mountain-goat wool, yellow cedar bark. h. 137 cm. Acquired 1977.
Other collection highlights
Bottle, Lucie Rie
This quiet and dignified piece with is an example of the steady stream of marvellous pots produced by Lucie Rie in London
Head of an Oba
This head, which was cast by the cire-perdue method at the beginning of the sixteenth century for the altars of ancestors, is of a remarkable thinness and an intense beauty
Maori standing figure
This treasure, often described as a ‘free-standing’ figure, is a vital symbol in the revitalisation of Maori identity, says Arapata Hakiwai