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The Tlingit of southeast Alaska have produced some of the finest examples of two-strand twining; their spruce root baskets exhibit bold geometric designs in warm hues of red, orange, yellow, and brown. In spring and fall, women collected the young roots of the Sitka Spruce, a tradition shared by both men and women today. The bark is peeled from the roots, which are left to cure over the summer. Then they are split and ready for weaving. The baskets are decorated in false embroidery, in which bleached, and often dyed grass is wrapped around the weft; the pattern is visible only on the outside of the basket. Natural dyes were obtained from local materials such as huckleberry, sulphuric mud, moss, hemlock bark, and alder bark steeped in urine. Commercial aniline dyes were popular as early as 1890, marking the beginning of the tourist trade era.
Utilitarian baskets were used to collect berries, roots, and shellfish for storage and for food preparation and serving. The flat-bottomed cylindrical berry basket is an older form. Large berry, or carrying baskets were worn on the back, and the smaller berry picking baskets emptied into them. Spruce root baskets are flexible and non-rigid; large berry baskets were often stored folded flat. Other forms include open-work strainers, plaques, cups, bowls, and rattle-top round boxes in which pebbles or lead shot were placed inside the lid. As the demand for made-for-sale baskets increased, Tlingit wove new forms, such as trays, teacups, and covered glass bottles.
Abstract designs often depict patterns observed in nature, such as the butterfly wing, whale’s teeth, path of the woodworm, tail of the raven, fern frond, and flying goose pattern. Realistic designs often portray animals. Other motifs represent aspects of Tlingit culture, such as tattoos and labrets, as well as patterns adopted from Euroamerican items, like Hudson Bay blankets and the Christian cross. The examples shown here highlight the variety of these forms and designs, both utilitarian and made-for-sale. Photography by Chris White, text by Elizabeth Kallenbach, and web development by Keith Hamm. Images © UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Production of this gallery was generously supported by The Ford Family Foundation.
Paul, Frances Lackey
1944 Spruce Root Basketry of the Alaska Tlingit. [United States]: Education Division, U.S. Indian Service.
Dangel, Helen Dianne
2005 A Celebration of Weavers; Catalog of Weaver and Baskets of the Doris Borhauer Basket Collection, Sitka, Alaska. A project by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska through a Historic Preservation Grant from the National Park Service. The Donning Company Publishers.
Weber, Ronald L. and George Thornton Emmons
1986 Emmons's Notes on Field Museum's Collection of Northwest Coast Basketry. Fieldiana, N.S. No. 9. Chicago, Ill: Field Museum of Natural History.
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