Man’s best friend gets another feather in its cap | Kingston Strand

When my grandmother passed away, each grandchild was given one of the fine quilts she had made for us. I remembered her working on them when we were younger, but had forgotten about them until her death.

The gift overwhelmed me with emotion, thinking about the love and care she had hand-sewn into these blankets with her arthritic fingers. I debated whether to use the quilt or keep it packed away for protection. I quickly decided that I would use it each day to commune with her memory. My experience helped me be more aware of the richness of artifacts as a connection to one’s past.

It has long been recognized that Coast Salish loom creations are unique and not derivative of any other traditional weaving technique. Early explorers described the production of woolens as valuable sources of portable, storable wealth for Native families. The presence, however, of unique fibers in Salish textiles has been a subject of much discussion over centuries.

In 1791, Spanish sailors arrived on the first European exploration of the Salish Sea, the network of coastal waterways between British Columbia and northwest Washington. They were accustomed to seeing people along the Pacific Coast clothed in furs and skins, but were astonished to find inhabitants of the Puget Sound region wearing colorful, plush woven woolens. Unable to communicate with the weavers, they suspected the yarn must have come from dogs, “partly because when the woven hair was compared with that of those animals no difference was found and partly from the great number of dogs they keep in their villages, most of which were shorn.” (“Spanish Explorations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca,” edited by Henry R. Wagner, Fine Arts Press, 1933).The following year, Capt. George Vancouver explored further into Puget Sound, and sailors observed kennels with a distinct breed of white-haired Spitz-like dog with a long, soft, white undercoat. In Port Orchard Bay, they saw these dogs “all shorn as close to the skin as sheep are in England.” (“A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific … Vol. 1,” Robinson and Edwards, 1798).

Some woven blankets were collected in 1841 during the U.S. Exploring Expedition of the same region, led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. “The blankets are many of them made by themselves of dogs [sic] wool,” wrote Augustus Case, a Wilkes Expedition officer. In describing the people, Wilkes himself noted, “Their dress consists of a native blanket, made of dog’s hair interspersed with feathers: this is much more highly valued than the bought ones, but is rarely to be obtained.” (Wilkes 1845, 4:488). These comments show how singularly valued these blankets were to local culture. But the unique dog wool blanket weaving quickly began to wane when cheap, easily obtained machine-spun yarns became available in the 1850s through trade with the Hudson Bay Company — leading the woolly dog to become extinct.

Surprisingly, despite these shipmen’s logs and the Suquamish people’s own oral narrative, investigators a half-century later were skeptical of the ability of people to produce such finely woven blankets from dog hair. Scientific proof was provided only recently through the use of electron microscope analysis. Marilyn Jones, heritage specialist for the Suquamish Tribe, had long heard stories about the woolly dog from Tribal elders. So she asked the Smithsonian Institution for an analysis of a Coast Salish blanket stored at the UW Burke Museum. It had frayed in one spot, revealing an assortment of fibers that could be scanned without damage to the artifact.

It took 10 years, but this scientific study should end doubts about the accuracy of historical and oral records. The fibers were found to be a combination of sinew, fireweed, cedar, whale fiber, goat hair, and the wool of a distinct species of dog that was fed mostly a salmon diet. Textile conservator Susan Heald of the National Museum of the American Indian, said, “I’m pleased that we can finally tell Marilyn that we did find dog hair in the older blankets, corroborating the oral history.”

— Dane Sundberg writes Kingston Strand for the Kingston Historical Society. Contact him at The Kingston Historical Society sincerely thanks Lydia Sigo, curator/archivist of the Suquamish Museum, for her contributions to this article; and Dr. Elaine Humphrey for her lectures on woolly dog bioimaging.