A Peek into the world and work of a WIA host: Textiles as Craft and as Practice

By Kirsten Lopez

Textile manufacture is a unique craft in that it involves fabrication, or the addition of materials as it is made, rather than the removal of materials, as when creating stone tools or pottery. The process of making the item is recorded in the movements and materials used (Camp 2016). Textiles here include not only fabric for clothing, but also woven mats, shoes, baskets, and other items that use the concept of weaving or twining to create the items used in every day life. Here we see daily use in ‘household equipment’, that are seen as resistant to change, and more likely to maintain cultural continuity longer than other items such as lithics or ceramics (Jolie 2014). This is thought to be due to the process of learning of a craft; the passage of technique and process down from one person to the next, often from older generations to younger, such as within a family line, from parent or grandparents to children and grandchildren (Jolie 2014). Think of anything you have learned to do from your parents; this could include sewing, gardening, working on the car, changing mouse traps (if your childhood chores were as unpleasant as mine!), or even how one washes the dishes. There’s a process to it, and generally an accepted order that things are done to do it “properly”. For example, learning the basics of gardening from my grandmother, or my father, what plants grow well in pots, which do best in the soil, how to prepare the garden bed for planting, and how to construct furrows in a small backyard garden so the water get to all the plants. I know now that there are other ways to do these things, and many theories behind various gardening practices. However, the practice I was taught as a young child, helping break up the soil, what to do for pests like eggshells to keep snails away or making slug “traps” out of half-full beer cans, these are the things that stick with me.

Getting back to textiles, part of the practice of creating these items is the harvest and preparation of materials for weaving, which has its own knowledge and practice that is passed along in the process (Jolie 2014; Joyce et al. 2014; Linda M. Hurcombe 2014). This knowledge is something that is known through familiarity with the landscapes lived in, but also through the tactile experience of the desired characteristics sought by the textile weavers, what some would refer to as embodied materiality of the plants themselves (Linda M. Hurcombe 2014; Ingold 2000) . Here we get a feel for what is needed to create the kind of items we need. One way to think of this is in relation to the clothing you wear: what materials are comfortable for certain activities? Would you wear a shirt and tie to run a the gym? Probably not. If we go back to our gardening example, you can think of plant varietals, or plants to choose for your garden at all. Do you think of planting vegetables like radishes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes? The next question that beginning gardeners sometimes forget to ask: “Will I eat this? Do I know how to prepare it? Am I willing to commit to eating what this/these plants produce? How many zucchini plants do I REALLY need?

With regard to considerations for plants used in basketry, one might consider the ease of preparation for use like whether they can be split without much fuss, the texture of the plant, and strength of the fibers in relation to what the final product will be used for. Some of these qualities are determined by the quality of the soil, how crowded the plant are by other vegetation, cobbles in the ground, water availability, and how thin or deep the soil is. Ethnographically, people of the American West from the Klamath to the Paiute and others have maintained groves and stands of plants used for basketry materials including willow, bracken fern, and other species to promote the desired characteristics (Fulkerson and Curtis 1995; Mathewson 2014; Wheat 1984). More often than not these locations are still known, but no longer accessible due to development, agriculture, or just plain old private property fence lines that prevent proper maintenance and care by the people who have done so since time immemorial.

Whether these ethnographically known practices extend as far back as the late Pleistocene cannot be said with confident from western science, but it also cannot be ruled out. We know very little about the history of the practice of textile crafting in the west, especially going back that far in time. What we do know is that people were leaving textiles in cave sites by at least 12,600 calendar BP (years before present) and in some places these very old textiles, around 10,000 years old are finer and larger than those made historically, making the assumption that linear progression from simple to complex textiles occurred with increasing social complexity, suspect (Fowler and Hattori 2008).The histories and knowledge bases for these practices are kept in the oral histories and traditions of each tribe, sometimes to be shared, other times to be kept close within the practice (and such decisions need to be respected). Often the process of caring for the plants and the soils they grow in are surrounded by lore and relationships with the spirit realm. Here the entanglement between the spiritual and the mundane cannot easily be separated as many western scientists would like them to be, as they may very well be deeply connected to place and ancestors.

These deeper involvements in the creation of basketry envelopes a larger practice than merely picking plants. The practice of textile craft incorporates the plants and groves and landscapes into the lives of the people that goes beyond the western understanding of material resources, and instead becomes a larger meshwork of landscape, practice, material culture, and embodiment (Linda M. Hurcombe 2014; Ingold 2000).

In this context, textile manufacture change amidst climate and environmental change during the transition from the Late Pleistocene to the Early Holocene in the Great Basin is marked by a drastic change in wetland and riparian habitats suitable for the plant materials with desired characteristics. Is it possible mobility patterns of people in the past were affected not only by changes in food distribution, but also in relation to necessary plant resources for daily life?

These are some of the questions I hope to find a way to answer with my thesis research at Oregon State University. If you have an interest or questions, feel free to contact me!

Works Cited
Camp, Anna J.
2016    Catlow Twine basketry in the western Great Basin: Use and reuse in the archaeological record. Quaternary International. DOI:10.1016/j.quaint.2016.05.009.
Fowler, Catherine S., and Eugene M. Hattori
2008    The Great Basin’s Oldest Textiles. In The Great Basin: People and Place in Ancient Times, edited by Catherine S. Fowler and Don D. Fowler, pp. 61–67. School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, NM.
Fulkerson, Mary Lee, and Kathleen Curtis
1995    Weavers of Tradition & Beauty: Basketmakers of the Great Basin. University of Nevada Press, Reno.
Ingold, Tim
2000    The Perception of the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling, and skill. Routledge.
Jolie, Edward A.
2014    Technology, Learning, and Innovation in Textile Arts: Integrating Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives. North American Archaeologist 35(4):303–329. DOI:10.2190/NA.35.4.c.
Joyce, Rosemary A., Julia A. Hendon, and Jeanne Lopiparo
2014    Working With Clay. Ancient Mesoamerica 25(02):411–420. DOI:10.1017/S0956536114000303.
Linda M. Hurcombe
2014    Perishable Material Culture in Prehistory: Investigating the Missing Majority. Routledge, London.
Mathewson, Margaret S.
2014    California Indian Basketweavers and the Landscape. In Climate change and indigenous peoples in the United States: impacts, experiences, and actions, pp. 174.
Wheat, Margaraet M.
1984    Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes. 3rd Paperback Printing. University of Nevada Press, Reno.


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