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Interview with Artist Kay Field Parker

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When did you first become aware of Ravenstail weaving?

During the mid-1980’s, I was taking a basketry class at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) from Dolores Churchill while master weaver Cheryl Samuel’s Ravenstail class was across the hall. I was struggling with my spruce root basket and I fell in love with what I saw the students creating in the Ravenstail class. I subsequently began taking classes from Cheryl, who is credited with reviving the Ravenstail weaving technique in the 1980s after it had been dormant for 200 years. I still take classes from Cheryl whenever possible. A number of weavers from Juneau travel to Sitka each summer in order to continue learning from Cheryl.

What were your first weaving projects?

I began by weaving small pieces, like bags and leggings and went on to complete all of Cheryl Samuel’s teaching projects, both Ravenstail and Chilkat.

In 1990, the Friends of the Alaska State Museum sponsored a group of weavers to create the Hands Across Time Robe – a collaborative project of weaving students headed by Cheryl Samuel, which took place in museum’s Northwest Coast clan house. This was believed to be the first original Ravenstail robe woven in Southeast Alaska since the early 1800s. I apprenticed, watched the weavers, and was able to work on the robe along with them. Working on the Hands Across Time Robe was my entry into Ravenstail weaving. As soon as we finished the robe, I wove three Ravenstail robes of my own. Subsequently, along with Cheryl Samuel and other weavers from around southeast Alaska and the Yukon, I helped weave the “Mother Robe” for the Ketchikan Totem Heritage Center and a Ravenstail robe for a wedding. We wove 18 hours a day as a group on the wedding robe and completed it in six weeks, weaving from 6 a.m. to midnight, often with three people sitting in front of the robe weaving, and two people in background prepping materials.

Can you tell one person's work from another?

No, but that is an interesting question. I spoke with Cheryl recently about how to discern the work of one weaver from another; she told me you can tell by the corners, but I haven’t yet been able to attribute pieces to any particular weaver.

What was your most challenging project?

I’ve recently woven three curved aprons, in preparation for weaving a tunic with sleeves that is in my exhibition. In both the curved aprons and the tunics with sleeves one of the challenges is adding lots of additional warps once the weaving is partially woven.

Weaving the three dimensional shoulder area and adding the arms on the tunic with sleeves has been the biggest weaving challenge. Thanks to the Rasmuson Foundation’s Individual Artist Project Grant, I was able to travel to two museums and study their tunics with sleeves and then weave what is possibly the first new tunic with sleeves woven in the past 80 years.

Are there new techniques?

Not that I know of. I thought that weaving my hats and purses in the round was new, but Bill Holm showed me a picture of a pair of dance leggings that are made from the sleeves of a tunic that were woven in the round.

Where do you get your materials?

Today most weavers use Merino warp and weft, which is the softest domestic wool available, but not as soft as mountain goat, which was traditionally used. Mountain goat is once again being used by weavers who have it available. Obtaining materials has always been a problem. The warp is a two-ply, very dense cord-like yarn, and was thigh spun. We are lucky to have a dedicated spinner who has been providing thigh spun warp for about 30 years. And I have developed a process to make a warp on a spinning wheel from bulky single-ply yarn. The weft yarns are high twist two-ply yarn that is not fuzzy, so the woven patterns will be clean. This type of yarn is not used by many and over the past 25 years we have had several mills discontinue making, what we considered the perfect yarn.

Any other thoughts about Ravenstail weaving that you’d like to share?

“The joy I get from weaving is compounded by its many facets; there is the “yoga” aspect of concentrating solely on the weaving which does not allow you to worry about other problems, there is the joy of seeing the design develop before your eyes and the way the geometric patterns force your eyes to dance around the weaving, and the tactile pleasure from your fingers as you immerse yourself in the softness of the wooly yarns that will bring your vision into the world.”