Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Presented at “Textiles and Settlement: From the Plains Space to Cyber Space,” Textile Society of America 12th Biennial Symposium, Lincoln, Nebraska, October 6-9, 2010. Copyright 2010 Textile Society of America


When aboriginal women of south western British Columbia, Canada undertook to revisit their once prolific and esteemed ancient textile practices, the strand of cultural knowledge and expertise linking this heritage to contemporary life had become extremely tenuous. Through an engagement with cultural memory, painstakingly reclaimed, Coast Salish women began a revival in the 1980s that includes historically resonant weaving and basketry, as well as the more recent adaptive and expedient practice of knitting. This revitalization faces continuing cultural challenges as a new generation is presented with the opportunity to engage its heritage.

Through interviews with principals in this movement plus an analysis of historical sources and artifacts, the revival and its current resonance and future prospects in Coast Salish communities are considered. In this interdisciplinary and interpretive study, textiles as historical sources, oral history and material culture are the tools employed to tease out details of a more nuanced history that can ameliorate marginalizations, especially those of aboriginal women. The “coercive and exclusive” acculturation (Goldberger, N. R.) of the past is shown to account for the loss of textile skill inseparable from culture. Agency, imbedded in ancestral knowledge, is identified as a means for textiles to communicate wisdom, history and identity in new contexts that value ‘ways of knowing’ in a decolonized (Smith, L. T. ) approach.

The visual concept of contemporary women ‘spinning back in time’ serves a literal and figurative function that encompasses the mesmerizing ability of spindle whorls, the act of spinning and the sensing of an ancestral presence while standing at the loom, to reconnect with the past. The determination of a dominant culture to force indigenous peoples to discard tradition may have “stilled the fingers of the native women” (Oliver Wells cited in Gustafson, P.) but in a gravely challenged culture a revitalized textile language has extended a thread of empowering cultural memory to a subsequent generation of Coast Salish who may or may not grasp it.