The Design Inspiration Behind the Raven's Tail ''Lightning Pattern'' Weaving and Bracelet

by Courtney Lipson, Featured Back Cover Jewelry-Artist
Art Jewelry magazine, March 2009

Several years ago my partner Scott introduced me to two weavers, Brenda Crabtree and Brenda Kearns, both of whom had studied Chilkat and Raven's Tail weaving with Cheryl Samuel. The ''Brendas'' taught me about cedar bark, how to work with it and how to weave a simple basket. As I watched Brenda Kearns' hands work, weaving the bark over and under, I felt a sense of awe at the grace and beauty of her movements. She was gentle and strong, never tiring of showing me over and over again how to do something. She said I had the mind of a weaver. Brenda Kearns passed away two years ago. I wish I had more time to learn from her.

I met artist and Chilkat weaver, Sk.wein, or Chloe French, this past January. Her enthusiasm for weaving and interest in my beadwork got the conversation started and before I knew it, she exclaimed, ''I will teach you to weave!'' I had no idea how much I wanted to learn until I heard those words. Chloe began teaching me to thigh-spin merino wool into warp yarns (the warp is the fringe you see at the bottom of the apron--it is the framework of the weaving). Spinning brought floods of memories for me; memories of my mother combing wool and spinning yarn on a spinning wheel when I was a child ... of my grandmother's tapestries and rugs ... the feeling of knowing I experienced looking at a Navajo weaving ... my other grandmother teaching me to crochet. I thought of Brenda Kearns, and felt her presence. I was spinning at night, making jewelry during the day. Some nights the wool called me from sleep and I would spend three or four hours spinning before watching the sun rise to start my day's work. In a month I had spun over 100 yards of warp--enough for an apron.

It was natural to weave Raven's Tail for my first weaving; as though I am following a path of evolution in the weaving. This is what ''Auntie'' Chloe told me would awaken my hands to this work. Later I read this quote in Cheryl Samuel's book The Raven's Tail:

''The determining difference between [Chilkat and Raven's Tail] weaving is the design. Traditional Raven's Tail robes demand a row by row solution to their development, and their designs are closely related to the structure of the weaves. In the curvilinear motifs of the Chilkat Dancing Blankets, wool is forced to act in a painterly mode and techniques become servant to design. The beauty of each of these styles rests on its own merits; each is a response to the challenge of design. The Chilkat weaving evolved, partially, from Raven's Tail weaving. Then it became something quite different and unique.''

The Design Inspiration Behind the Raven's Tail ''Lightning Pattern'' Weaving and Bracelet
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Scott made a yellow cedar loom for me, and Auntie Chloe allowed me to choose my patterns, saying she could teach me, whatever I chose. From the first moment I saw her fingers move across the warp, pulling weft yarns through in an elaborate dance, I thought, ''How am I going to do this?'' She handed the strands to me, and gently coached as my trembling fingers moved through the motions. I was forcing my fingers, feeling awkward. After the first row was complete I began the next, only this time I closed my eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and my fingers began to dance too. Auntie Chloe told me the fingering technique was Jennie Thlunaut's ... it felt so natural. Chloe French had learned from Clarissa Hudson, apprentice to Jennie Thlunaut. I felt as though I was encircled by knowledge and wisdom, prodded by weavers from the past and present to weave with determination and spirit.

The weaving became my main focus--I was still weaving at night, making jewelry in the day, but my jewelry began to reflect Raven's Tail patterns. I wanted to ''work out'' the patterns in the grid of beads, to ''figure out'' how the complexities worked. I worked the patterns inside and out with the beads, as if the jewelry was my graph paper. I needn't have worried, because as I wove the apron I realized the patterns emerge naturally. There was no graph paper 200 years ago when Raven's Tail weavings were made. The twining techniques establish the design; each horizontal row geometrically builds the pattern. Seeing, or rather feeling, this strengthened my understanding of why weaving has always interested me. As Auntie Chloe says, ''There is magic in weaving, in how it draws together teacher and student.'' I truly feel intertwined with the past, present, and future, and I am now spinning warp yarns for another project.

Thank you to Auntie Chloe, for bringing forth the weaver in me: giving me a gift of self and of belonging.

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