Evelyn Vanderhoop: Weaving the Chilkat robe

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KINGSTON, Wash. - Sitting in front of the robe that has been her constant companion for the last 22 months, Evelyn Vanderhoop, Haida, approaches the birth of her creation.

"Today I'll be done, I've been working day and night," she says as she weaves the last corner.

Vanderhoop has entered a group of six Native people in the world who still know how to weave the Chilkat Robe.

Initially a successful watercolor painter in Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts, Vanderhoop came home and met cedar carver David Boxley, Tsimsian.

"At that critical time when I was falling in love. David asked me to do a Raven's Tail trim to a button blanket. I said sure, I'd seen my mom do it and she made it look so easy. So over the winter I did it. That started me into my weaving and I found out I had the patience."

As she speaks, Boxley is in his workshop preparing for the potlatch to honor the robe.

"I come from a weaving family. My grandmother received an award and my mother received an honorary degree for keeping the tradition going. When it was low tide, my grandma, she'd get us out to the beach or the forests to gather. These traditions were something I saw from the beginning."

The Chilkat robe is strictly a woman's art. A male artist would paint the form line art pattern board and the women gathered the mountain goat wool, spun the warp and weft, and wove the blanket.

"These robes were historically accessible only to people who were really wealthy, since it takes more than a year of a woman's life. My mother's Haida and she's a master weaver. She was challenged by the Chilkat. She loves to learn all the techniques, like me.

"I wanted to learn. So, I spun my own warp and I wanted my mom to teach me. I asked and for two years my mom said, ?No.' Finally I asked, ?Am I not a good enough weaver?' She said, ?No, I just don't think you have thick enough skin.'"

Vanderhoop has run into some static. However, as she says, "When I was weaving this robe, I felt particularly good about this design, because it is an eagle design. David is Tsimsian and he's an eagle and I'm an eagle.

"This robe is a replication of a robe in the Museum of Natural History. ... The Northern Tlingit were the last to weave this way, but the art was never lost."

Referencing the potlatch, Vanderhoop continues, "My mother always makes sure that every collector knows that anything she weaves has to be officially brought out and witnessed in its first dance. It's not a wall hanging, it's not a blanket, it's a robe that's used in ceremony. And so we are making a ceremony for it. It is exciting that it will be danced and David will be the first one to dance.

Vanderhoop had received a commission for her second Chilkat robe which "feels really good ... ."

She's busy figuring out her main clan designs. She wants a Chilkat robe.

"After weaving all this, I know my ancestors wove this way. The solutions just come to me. ... It's really important to think good things. If you slip into something negative, sure enough you find you've been making mistakes."