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Haida Tradition Lost for 150 Years Recaptured by Artist

Posted by on Thursday, March 3, 2011

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Hageman and Haida Made

Many Haida artists work to not only recapture old traditions but to take those traditions in new directions. Recently, a talented raven's tail weaver named Lisa Hageman spent two years completing a chief's robe using a technique that hadn't been tried in more than 150 years. We spoke to her about Haida art and what it took to complete this stunning project.

CG: Are you trying to recapture lost traditions in your work?

LH: My personal and professional focus is to learn as much as I can about the ancient weaving techniques by studying them. If I can, in some manner, replicate them, I can learn from them and expand and make them new and contemporary in my own work.

CG: How does art, craft and design shape Haida identity?

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Hageman and Haida Made
LH: It’s part of every day life. Many of the objects created by Haida artists are used in ceremonies. The art changes, but I believe that there’s a core or backbone that remains unchanged.

CG: Is there an international audience for your work?

LH: A group of Haida were invited to the Indigenous Forum in Pau, France, in 2006, where I demonstrated traditional weaving. I’ve also demonstrated these techniques at the National Museum of Ireland and done personal research at the British Museum, exploring their stores of ancestral Haida artworks.

CG: Did they have samples of Haida weaving?

LH: They did, along with traditional Haida wood carvings and hats and robes. It’s quite spectacular what’s hidden away.

CG: You travelled to Morocco recently?

LH: There’s a Moroccan who is the last man schooled in a particular type of weaving. So I wanted to go meet with him and watch him work. I can’t take his type of weaving and apply it to what I do, but I’m always interested in seeing what other traditional weavers around the world are doing .

CG: What is raven’s tail weaving?

Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Hageman and Haida Made
LH: Raven’s tail is one of the few gravity weighted weaving techniques in the world, which means the warp hangs freely off of a frame. If you were to look at it, it’s essentially just these strands of wool hanging from a bar. We weave geometric patterns from left to right, and the tension on the entire piece from left to right and top to bottom is controlled entirely by the weaver’s hands, their body and their mood. So the trick to a piece that stays true from beginning to end is the amount of mental, physical and emotional control that the weaver has over themselves.

There are days that I’m so relaxed that I have to accept that I’m too relaxed to weave, and there are days that I’m overwrought about something and know that it’s not a weaving day either.

CG: Recently you created a chief’s robe with a technique that hadn’t been used in 150 years?

LH: Ancestrally Haida weavers would take fresh wool between their palm and their thigh and would spin it. When this wool is finished being prepared, if you look down the shaft, you can see the fibers twisting counter-clockwise. This twist is known as z-twist.

These strands then form the warps that hang down and create the backbone of the finished piece. You then take the weft wool and weave it horizontally through the work. Ancestrally the weft wool was also prepared with a z-twist, and when you look at a Haida piece of weaving, the motion of the weavers hand as they put each stitch in is also a counter-clockwise z-twist motion.

After contact Haida weavers were able to purchase commercially prepared wool, which was prepared with an s-twist. So if you look down the shaft, the fibers go clockwise. The weavers still prepared the warps as z-twists, but they were using a weft that went in the wrong direction. So over the course of a pieces, as you applied the one-direction which was counter to the spin of the weft, it unraveled. It changed the look of the finished piece.

There’s an astonishingly talented woman on Haida Gwaii named Cindy Davies, and she spins wool. So, after many meetings, with her help, I was able to do a robe that utilized the Z-twist warp, weft and weave. It was the first time in 150 years that we had returned entirely to an ancestral robe, although the wool wasn’t gathered from mountain goats.

CG: What a kind of objects is this technique used to create?

LH: I create ceremonial pouches, head-dresses and full regalia — which includes dance leggings, dance aprons and chief’s robes.

CG: Does it take a long time to prepare the wool?

LH: Oh my! To hang a full chief’s robe you need to prepare 1,000 yards of warp. So you take the wool, you thigh spin it, after you thigh spin it you immerse it in incredibly hot water, which makes it shrink. Then you re-stretch it to dry it. So you spend roughly three months, all day every day, just thigh spinning and preparing the wool before you begin your first stitch.

It’s a huge commitment. I think that part of the test to know whether you can weave a robe — because a robe can take a year to two years to do — is of your mental strength as you prepare these balls of wool.

My mother used to say that part of the spirit of the person, the artist is woven into that wool. It’s easy to understand how that could be.

In September 2010, Hageman won B.C.'s Creative Achievement Award for First Nations Art for her work and the Hageman-7idansuu Robe. To read more and see complete photos of the robe and Hageman's work, check out her website.

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