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Salish weavers bring home an ancient art form

Rare blankets on view in Fabric of the Land exhibit at UBC's Museum of Anthropology

The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving – Museum of Anthropology. Until April 15. For more information visit

The art of Salish weaving was almost lost to the ages.

The processes required to harvest materials and make the intricate ceremonial blankets disappeared as colonialism took hold in the 19th century. The art of weaving was a seminal component of traditional Salish culture and its significance unravelled at the same time as the First Nations lost control of their lives.

Over the past half century that process has been reversed as researchers have rediscovered the techniques that were used in the ancient art form.

Most Salish blankets made in pre-colonial times now reside in museums around the world. Musqueam weavers suggested UBC’s Museum of Anthropology consider hosting an exhibit of some of the known historical blankets to inspire the revitalization of the art form and share part of the rich legacy with a new audience.

Salish weavers selected 10 blankets collected in the Pacific Northwest during the 19th century to be part of the unique exhibition. Blankets from Finland, Scotland, England and the eastern United States have been returned for the first time to their original home region.

Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow will be weaving in the museum on Wednesdays and Fridays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. during the exhibit.

Sparrow spoke to the North Shore News about the journey of Salish weaving from the early 1800s through to today’s renaissance.


NSN: Some of the blankets in the exhibit are hundreds of years old but they appear to have held up remarkably well over the centuries.

Debra Sparrow: Well, they’ve been living in a museum so they’ve been well taken care of.


NSN: Is there one blanket that is thought to be the oldest or are there several of the same vintage?

Debra Sparrow: The oldest one is about 200 years and they trickle down over the last 100, 150 years. They kind of stop there because that’s about the time they stopped making them.


NSN: Is it possible to tell which areas or families had the oldest blankets and where those blankets come from?

Debra Sparrow: They’ve all been collected in the Lower Mainland area. With the coming of the Europeans and their interest in the beauty of them they were sought after to be collected and brought back home. A lot of the local tribes would go to Fort Langley and trade but some were collected by the explorers that came down the river or across the water like Captain Vancouver. Some of them are not properly documented. They didn’t say what families they came from and they didn’t talk about the patterning.

What we’ve come to (realize) in our Salish villages and communities is that there could have been a time where they were recognizable to certain villages but with intermarriage they had the opportunity to make those patterns, as well.

It’s interesting we’ve been working with the patterns for some 30-odd years now and we have weavers throughout the Lower Mainland, especially in your area now on the North Shore, down in the south on Vancouver Island. Some of those blankets can be associated with certain villages but we were all just reproducing the patterns so I think they are all kind of shared patterns now. We can’t associate them with particular families because it was gone for so long.


NSN: Would Musqueam and other Salish weavers share designs or were they distinct?

Debra Sparrow: We were not all individual villages back then we were all very closely related and we would share as much as we could. North Shore, Musqueam, Upper Squamish, going east to Chilliwack through to Lytton, Lillooet, Spuzzum. Spuzzum seems to have some very interesting blankets, really complex. They almost reflect the quilt-making and we don’t have the evidence that they were sharing or being influenced by the European women in the later 1800s. The blankets almost disappear because a few of them look quite close to the quilting however the patterns are all Salish so they followed that idea but kept their own design.


NSN: How about Vancouver Island. Same thing?

Debra Sparrow: Same thing. Going up the river, coming down the river, over to Vancouver Island and the tip of Vancouver Island which is Songhees territory up to Duncan, up to Nanaimo. We’re closely related. We were going back and forth with marriages, with relationships, with fishing, with hunting. There were no mountain goats on the Lower Mainland here so we would either trade or make our way up, hunting ourselves.

There’s a map when you first walk into the exhibit and it shows where the fibres were collected and it shows where the mountain goats can still be found. The map also refers to the little woolly canines. I don’t like to say dog. It was a wild animal with a similar size to a fox that they domesticated for the hair to mix with the mountain goat to make the blankets. They actually domesticated them enough to have them living in Salish villages along the coast. They went extinct with interbreeding.


NSN: Weaving was widespread among the Coast Salish.

Debra Sparrow: It was their life. I think that’s why we called it, Fabric of the Land. It defined who we were. Everybody had to have blankets. We used them for bedding, we used them for our cultural ceremonies, we used them for every part of our life, it was the fabric of who we were and who we are. When you think about how amazing life must have been. It had its hardships as well but we were very tied to the land and we’re not like that anymore. That’s why we are so excited to have the show come back, not only as a reminder to the Salish people but all people that you too and all people are fabric of the land themselves. Every culture had weaving. Every culture was doing this.


NSN: How were the looms made?

Debra Sparrow: They are pretty simple looms. They are two bar looms, seven feet by six feet and they have kind of a point on the bottom. They were actually hammered deep into the earth. They were pretty steady with the two bars and a third floating bar. It’s all finger weaving so it’s all done by hand. It’s done like tabby, twill and twine – which is done by all women and men throughout the world. The basic technique is similar and someone who does tapestry weaving pointed out in one of the blankets she thought one of the stitches was very similar to that.


NSN: Were there Salish men who weaved as well?

Debra Sparrow: We don’t know that for sure either. We have no evidence. We have nobody to ask. It was gone from the Musqueam for 80 years so there was no handing on of tradition. We’ve been self-taught for the past 30 years and now we can teach people. We do have a fellow in our community who is a weaver. He’s amazing at it. There are other forms of weaving on the coast. Chilkat, they call it Raven’s Tail. We have a friend who is a weaver from that area, Willie White is an amazing weaver. What we do know is that men supplied it all and brought everything home.


NSN: Were there special places where the looms were kept within a home?

Debra Sparrow: I don’t think they were special. They were part of their life. I have mine in my kitchen. I work on it everyday. I’m going home to work on it right now. It’s part of your life. It’s just what you do. You don’t want it removed because you have too much to do in terms of your family.


NSN: There is an 80-year period where knowledge of the craft disappeared. How did the renaissance happen?

Debra Sparrow:  Because it wasn’t there and we started to wonder what our people were doing? When we look at the north and the south and the east and we look at  all the visual beauty that lived in this land we said, ‘What were we doing?’ It didn’t seem to be evident visually but what was evident was in our winter ceremonies which we don’t share with the world. My sister Wendy, who actually spearheaded bringing these blankets home and making a partnership with the museum, and I would talk about it. We actually asked our grandfather if he’d seen any of this weaving and apparently he’d shown Wendy one of the simplest blankets when she was a young girl and she’d forgotten about it. We searched it out and Wendy was able to take a technical course by someone who wasn’t Musqueam but was researching the history of weaving and taught Wendy the techniques.


NSN: Was this Paula Gustafson?

Debra Sparrow: No, Paula wrote the book on Salish weaving. She was the one who catalogued them and researched them. I hold my hands up to Paula because if we had not had that book I don’t think we would have even taught ourselves. We really used that book as a guide. We were in awe of what we saw and Wendy came home and gathered 10 women together and began to teach.

I wasn’t actually part of that group. I was learning Salish formlines. They are very different from others on the Northwest Coast. I was studying that and making jewellery, and they were doing the weaving. I would go visit them. I didn’t really want to be a weaver I just sort of watched them. I went reluctantly into the group but I started to see all the missing links being put together for myself. I was at a time in my life where I was wondering why do we exist? This seemed to help me find my way back to our history, back to where we were and since then I’ve been honoured to be on this journey and walk with my ancestors.

I hope when people come and visit they realize the depth of who we are as Salish people and the complexity of the knowledge. I hope that they also look at the patterns and realize that it goes across cultures. The technique is very similar throughout the world. We, too, as weavers take our place but it’s not just about the weaving it’s about the values (involved in the process.)


Selected references:

Salish Weaving by Paula Gustafson, University of Washington Press / Douglas & McIntyre, 1981.

Hands of Our Ancestors, The Revival of Salish Weaving at Musqueam, UBC Museum of Anthropology, Museum Note No. 16, 1986.

Salish Blankets: Robes of Protection and Transformation, Symbols of Wealth by Leslie H. Tepper, Janice George, Willard Joseph, University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

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