Spruce Root Weaving

Spruce root hat by Isabel Rorick Photo: Jennifer Armstrong

Acknowledging the skill and tenacity of Haida spruce root weavers, Robert Davidson explains, “you can’t fake weaving.” With other Haida art forms correcting mistakes is possible, “but in weaving, if there is one twine that is not right, your eye goes right to it.” Twined and plaited hats are the most distinctive form of basketry produced and are considered by some to be the “single most elegant manifestation of Haida fiber art.” The fine skill needed to produce a hat or basket is a slow process with some more complicated patterns taking up to three months to complete.

Spruce root weaver Isabel Rorick (Haida, Yahgu’7laanaas clan) has achieved international recognition with 12 exhibitions of her work with the latest in 2011. Rorick comes from a long line of weavers on both sides of her family. Her mother Primrose Adams first taught her how to make chief’s hats while her aunt Delores Churchill encouraged her to weave to ensure traditional knowledge was passed on to future generations. Rorick’s great grandmother, Isabella Edenshaw (1858-1926) and grandmother, Florence Edenshaw (1896-1993) were both masterful weavers, although they are rarely recognized within Canadian art history literatures for their fine basketry.

Rorick began weaving at the age of thirteen taught mainly by her grandmother “Nonny” Selina Peratrovich and Delores Churchill. Peratrovich would visit Haida Gwaii twice a year from Ketchikan, Alaska to harvest the materials needed for her basketry and would sing songs and make baskets while Rorick watched. At the age of eighteen, Rorick became interested in carving and took a course at Camosun College with Tony Hunt and later apprenticed in his workshop. 

In 1978, Robert Davidson was in the process of carving house poles for the Edenshaw longhouse and Rorick was invited to carve with the men. Rorick was busy at work with Davidson when Nonny Selina visited the site and pointedly asked, “What are you going to do - are you going to weave or carve? You better make up your mind right now. If you’re going to weave, come with me, right now.” Rorick explains that she had not thought of weaving until Nonny Selina formally approached her that day: 

“I didn’t realize at the time but she was literally the last woman of her generation to be actively weaving spruce root. Aunty Delores [Churchill] and her daughter were the only other women who were weaving at the time. Once I learned how to weave and realized how close we had come to losing this knowledge forever, it had a totally different meaning for me. I decided then to follow the strict discipline of the old masters.”

It was then that Rorick decided to dedicate her time to the practice of weaving and to continue the “unbroken line” of female weavers on both sides of her family. 

To many Haida weavers the process is one of the most important aspects of the art: from harvesting spruce roots to the intricately woven designs passed down from older generations. The designs consist of geometric shapes that are drawn from the natural world that may include the spider, slug, and dragonfly design: “I learned the slug pattern from Nonny Selina, but the origins of these forms may have come from the experience of collecting the spruce materials, and from the spiritual connection to the land at that time.” To Rorick, the formal elements of weaving- the technique and the materials- “represent an unbroken line. It is something that has continued for centuries and that is why I do it, because I am continuing a tradition that has been going on for so long...my attraction to the spruce tree goes beyond roots and weaving, it is a connection to my past and future.” 

In the early nineteenth century on an ethnographic collecting trip for the Field Museum in Chicago, C.F. Newcombe purchased a painted Haida hat made by Isabella Edenshaw and painted by her husband, Charles Edenshaw. While the names of early weavers are rarely known,
the exceptionally rare and simple act of recording one woman's name to a single art object lead to the identification of other works by Isabella that would have otherwise remained anonymous. 

Close examination of Isabella’s weaving style revealed a combination of unique characteristics. Among others, the use of the skip-stitch dragonfly pattern with the hat brim finished in a four-strand braid. The artistic skill, knowledge, designs, and the creative talent of past master weavers like Isabella Edenshaw continue to be passed down from one generation to the next. For example, Rorick explains that all her patterns, including the dragonfly, cresting wave, slug, and spider come from Nonny Selina and Nonny Florence passed on from Isabella Edenshaw and her grandmother before her. 

Rorick’s creative abilities, technical skills, and traditional knowledge inherited from past master weavers disrupts the notion held by past Canadian art historians and European ethnographers that Indigenous women were not actively engaged in material and cultural art production post-contact. Rorick’s artistic prowess derives directly from the female artists before her who continued to produce work during times of great adversity.

Works Cited:

Blackman, Margaret B and Florence Edenshaw Davidson. During My Time: Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a Haida Woman. Seattle/Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, University of Washington Press. 1982.

Busby, Sharon. Spruce Root Basketry of the Haida and Tlingit. Seattle/London: University of Washington Press, 2003.

Gijssen, Jacqueline. “Following the Discipline of Old Masters.” Travelling Raven. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006. 126-139.

Jensen, Doreen., et al. Topographies: Aspects of Recent B.C. Art. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre Ltd. 1996.

Kundston, Peter. “The Weavers of Wood: Ancient Art Haida Basketry.” A Mirror to Nature: Reflections on Science, Scientists, and Society. Toronto: Stoddard, 1991. 121-129.

Petkau, Karen. “Carrying a Culture: The Distinctive Regional Styles of Basketry Nations of the Pacific Northwest.” White Rock Museum, 2004.

Ramsay, Heather. “Fifty Years of Haida Weaving: The Robert Davidson Collection.” Northword. June 2009. Oct. 30 2012 http://northword.ca/june-2009/fifty-years-of-haida-weaving.