MOA is fortunate to have a large, beautiful old Salish loom in the collection. It was made sometime in the early 1900s for Mrs. Bartleman, a weaver from the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation (Saanich), by her husband. Since 2010, the loom has stood in MOA’s Multiversity Galleries—but somehow, despite being over 10 feet long and five feet high, it has always looked small and is often overlooked.
For years, Musqueam weaver Debra Sparrow has wanted to warp this loom to help bring it to life and to demonstrate the importance of Salish weaving. During the planning for the exhibition The Fabric of Our Land: Salish Weaving (which ran from November 2017 to April 2018), many weavers spoke of the need for the public to see a loom in use. I asked our conservator, Heidi Swierenga, if the loom could be warped and used for weaving. The answer was yes. In consultation with Heidi, mount designers Carl Schlichting and Andreas Schlichting designed and built a mount for the loom to accomplish two goals: it would demonstrate how the loom was constructed with pointed uprights that would have been planted into the ground, and it would allow for the loom to be made functional once again. We applied for and received a UBC Community Animation grant so that Debra could spin the wool and warp the loom in time for the exhibition opening.
Further funding, generously provided by the Michael O’Brian Family Foundation fund for strategic acquisitions, enabled us to commission Debra to create a new weaving on the loom. Surrounded by the stunning early weavings loaned for the exhibition, Debra wove in the gallery space, interacting with thousands of visitors interested in learning from her. We offered her headsets to reduce distraction while she worked, but she declined, insisting it was her privilege to talk with them.
There are very few early patterned Salish weavings in existence today. Those that do still exist are mostly in museums distant from Salish territories. One of the most distant is the extraordinary blanket housed at the National Museum of Finland. This weaving entered the collection of the University of Helsinki in 1828 and was later transferred to the National Museum. When we first opened its crate in August 2017 in order to undertake the condition report, Debra was present to welcome the robe home. As far as we know, this was the first time a Salish community member had seen the blanket in almost 200 years. This weaving spoke to Debra, and she decided her new weaving would be an homage to this blanket. Throughout the weaving process she engaged with the early robe, being inspired by it, learning from it, and uncovering the knowledge of technique and design it contains. Activated for the first time in close to a hundred years, the Bartleman loom came to life as visitors were able to appreciate its form and function.
So many visitors talked with Debra that she was unable to complete the weaving during the exhibition. We moved the loom into the hallway at the entrance to the Audain Gallery, and Debra continued to weave and interact with visitors. At the same time, I was working to reconnect the loom to the Bartleman family. Thanks to the assistance of Bartleman descendants at Musqueam and through Facebook posts on the Coast Salish Weavers page, connections were made and I met family members. We arranged a time when they could come and visit with other family heirlooms in the collection here and be present to see the weaving in progress.
On August 15, over a dozen Bartleman family members gathered with Debra Sparrow, MOA staff and museum visitors in front of the newly completed blanket. Debra invited two members of the Bartleman family to take the weaving off the loom. Cecilia Grant and Charles Elliot slowly rotated and pulled the loom’s floating bar out of the looped warp ends. As they did so, the weaving was gently released. After a few additions the blanket was completed, and this stunning new weaving took pride of place in MOA’s collection.