The Raven's Tail

Raven's Tail Robe that was woven by my Daughter Carrie Anne Vanderhoop Bellis

Raven's Tail is an Ancient Technique of Weaving Chief Robes

Many years ago, before foreign people came to our coast, the nations would engage in extensive trade between each other.  Our environment determined what we would specialize as trade items.  For the Haida, out in our ocean home, Haida Gwaii, we would have halibut, seal, cod, sea weed, tobacco and potatoes. Our islands also had massive cedar trees. We carved canoes that were sought after from all nations. The mainland people traded for our goods with land furs and hide, mainland plants and oolagan oil.  Mountain Goat wool was also traded. All the northern people used the mountain goat wool for garments and garment embellishments. Its value was standardized and was used as an early currency item. 

The techniques used to make chiefly robes from mountain goat wool, evolved from basketry weaving techniques.The loosely hung warps are made from pure mountain goat wool that were spun and rolled down the spinners thigh. This create a dense firm warp that will not bunch under the tension of the weavers finger actions. The "loom" is simply a drilled bar suspended between posts.  The weaving progresses downward as it is created by the rows of weft weaving.

The weft yarns are entered on the left side edge and woven in a two strand twine, across to the right side.  The tie off, creates a fringe that is mirrored with a fringe addition on the left side.  Heavily fringed, the white, black and yellow, rectangular robe is an impressive garment. Geometric patterns grow with the addition of each separate woven row.

Cheryl Samuel has done extensive research on the existing robes found in museum collections around the world.  You can find more information on the technical details of this beautiful art form in her book, The Raven's Tail.

My mother, Delores Churchill, helped Cheryl Samuel weave the first Raven's Tail Robe in modern time.  She has been instrumental in teaching, mentoring and continuing this ancient weave. I was taught and mentored by both my mother and Cheryl. I now also weave and teach the Raven's Tail.  My two daughters, Tiffany Amber Vanderhoop and Carrie Anne Vanderhoop Bellis, are weavers and teachers of the Raven's Tail.

I have been doing extensive research into the historical and cultural use of the Northwest Coast textiles. During this research, I have developed a true appreciation of the importance the mountain goat garments held within our Pacific coast people's cultures. I hope to share what I have been discovering also in book form.
But until then, I hope my pages on this site will help foster an educated appreciation of the textiles of our coast.
Close up detail of Raven's Tail remnant at University of Pennsylvania

The above is a photograph of the Swift Robe pattern detail, this exquisite robe was donated to the Peabody Museum, Harvard Massachusetts.  The following information was written in 1910 by Charles C Willoughby:

The blanket was obtained about the year 1800 by Captain Benjamin Swift, 1770- 1857, of Charles Town, Massachusetts, who, in his younger days, was engaged in the Northwest fur trade. Like most ethnological specimens collected in that region by the early "Boston" traders there is no record of the exact locality where it was procured. It is very probable, however, that it came from the northern coast region of British Columbia.
With the exception of the overcasting of fur at its upper edge, the robe is made wholly of mountain goat wool.  The colors are yellow, a brownish black and the natural white of the wool.

The article goes on to further describe the robe: 
The most remarkable thing about the robe however is its technic; so far as known it shows the highest development of hand weaving among North American tribes.  It belongs to an altogether different class from the well-known Chilkat blanket in which the various parts of the designs are woven separately by twining double strands of the desired color back and forth across the warp cords until each unit of the design is completed in solid color, the finished blanket being, so to speak, a mosaic in different colors, a technic also common in the variously colored blankets of the Salishan people. The line of junction of the different units composing the design in the Chilkat blanket is covered and outlined by one or more rows of three strand twining, a weave also present in the Swift blanket where it is used in forming the I-shaped figures, and as a dividing line between the black and yellow bands of the border, also as a black line near the outer edge of the robe.
American Anthropologist new series Vol. 12 January March 1910  No. 1—

David Boxley wearing Raven's Tail edged robe - naaxiin apron and leggings woven by Evelyn Vanderhoop

 My first Raven's Tail project was the edge of a robe commissioned by David A Boxley.  He was preparing for his grandfather's memorial feast.  He sponsored my two day class at the Seattle Art Museum with Cheryl Samuel and commissioned this robe from me.  I had seen naaxiin woven edged button blankets in museum collections and was very happy to be the first to create the first Raven's Tail edged robe ever.

 Robe Weaving Progress~~ FIRST IN TWO CENTURIES

The first Raven's Tail robe I worked on was a robe that my mother, Delores Churchill was commissioned to weave. She asked me to assist her. We came together in Haida Gwaii and rented a house in Old Massett.  We started by thigh spinning our warp. This took us a little under two weeks working day and night only taking out time for lunch and dinner with a few low tide breaks.  During the summer and fall that we wove in Massett, we were amazed at the generosity of the community. Often hunters and fishermen would drop their bounty off at our door step.
 Rolf Bettner discovered our project and asked if he could document our progress. He said he was free lancing for the Museum of Civilization and we thought that would be a good thing to have our weaving progress documented.  The following photos are what he shot during that time. 
Three fourths through the robe, I had to leave for a potlatch in Metlakatla. My mother completed it and it went to the collector. Robert Davidson wore it during his wedding ceremony to Terri Lynn Williams in Skidegate. Robert also was the first to dance it during its bringing out at Celebration in Juneau, Alaska.
 I hope you enjoy the following photos of a robes emerging from yarn to mantle.
Spinning the wool. By the time we were at the last day of spinning my hand was raw and broke skin.
 Mom and I are making sure each warp is even to itself.

Delores Churchill, the master weaver, is calculating the pattern count and drawing and grafting the designs. I am learning a lot about the math of a robe.

Johnny Bennet made our loom. He painted it and everything.We laid a sheet down to keep our ends clean. We also put booties on the warp ends too.
The beginning of the spiral weft design is very tricky. Carrie Anne came over from Martha's Vinyard to assist us with the multiple switching that need to be done on these sides. 

The concentric design is on its way. At this point the ground twining has to be made very straight and the space between each row must be made even. Braiding and spiral wefts must be continued. There is many things to remember.
We are checking our lines of weft weaving. It is so important to keep them straight. I think this style, the concentric forms, are the most difficult central designs. They look simple and they are the hardest to do correctly. This fact I learned during the time with my mom.

 Sock Hop
We are now rolling the top up and  right in the middle of the robe.

Robert Davidson dancing the completed robe at Celebration in Juneau AK.


  1. Ah ha, this is what you have been up to since rhe last time i saw you. My sister, i am proud to to see tou carring on tou beautiful tradition. You work express is not only historical, culture and its beauty, it is a reflection of your beauty and appreciation for your traditional ways. I love it!

  2. Sorry about the typos. Can i blame it on my tiny cell phone keypad?

  3. Very impressed with your amazing work, it must take a lot of concentration to get the patterns looking so even.
    Will look forward to reading your book.

    Jaquie in the UK