Monday, February 16, 2009

Buttons : Button Blankets

Haida button blanket decorated with a human figure (ca. 1900); wool, dentalium shells, abalone shell, pearl buttons (from Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation)

A few years ago I found one of the most spectacular button art creations I had ever seen by surfing on the internet. I am talking about the North American Button Blankets. I fell immediately in love with this kind of button art !

Haida button blanket with a double-headed Eagle (ca. 1900); wool, dentalium shells, abalone shell, pearl buttons (Photo from Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation)

From around 1800, Pacific Northwest Coast Indian tribes (like the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nisga'a and others) often traded furs for woolen blankets from maritime european traders and later the Hudson's Bay company. Rather than sleeping equipment, the blankets were made into robes for ceremonial purposes; they were worn over the shoulders like capes.

First Nations people in button blankets at Quatsino Sound (Ben W. Leeson, 19--) from Vancouver Historical Society

Why were they decorated with buttons ? One legend tells that a member of the Kwagiutl tribe saw once a Pearly King and liked what he saw. Another legend tells it was inspired by the white pearl buttons on the uniform of a British sailor. Truth is that early pictures show that the blankets were first decorated with feathers and abalone shells. These were eventually replaced by mother of pearl buttons, obtained from traders and sailors' uniforms, and were much easier to use. Most blankets are made of dark blue duffle with red flannel appliqué outlined with pearl buttons. The central crest typically portrayed a symbol of the wearer's family heritage. Symbols found are the frog, raven, whale, thunderbird etc.

Tlingit button blanket with killer whale (1891-1898); wool, pearl buttons (from The Burke Museum of National History and Culture)

Traditionally, these robes were worn during dance ceremonies. The dancer would move displaying the shiny patterns of the shell buttons to the audience. The community would know the dancer's family clan and its historial status just by the design on the robe. The robes were handed down from generation to generation. After 1880 the Indians were discouraged by the governments to hold their traditional ceremonies and not many button blankets were made anymore. Around 1950 a revival of the button blanket occurred. New button blankets are made, and classes in button work are offered. The button blanket has now become the most popular piece of contemporary feast attire. Today, buttons are sometimes used to fill entire zones of the design elements and even the whole field of the background.

Tlingit button blanket with frog (1920s); wool, pearl buttons (from The Burke Museum of National History and Culture)

A modern re-invention of
the button blanket concept by
Coho Creations:

Based on:
Clarissa Hudson Studio
The Button Lover's Book (Creative Machine Arts Series) by Marilyn V. Green
Make a Button Blanket

New button blanket (from Shawl Lady dot Com)


Sigmosaics said...

wow, amazing! I love that photo of the early creations ... they look super cosy (albeit startled) inside them :D

you always post the most enjoyable articles to read ... thank you!

Star of the East said...

Wow buttons seem like an endless inspiration source, thanks for sharing!

Kreativlink said...

I love to read your clever button posts. And these blankets are amazing!

ingermaaike said...

Thank you very much for once again a most interesting history and anthropology lesson!

Veerle said...

Really really interesting! did not know that buttons were used for this kind of applications.
thnaks a lot for sharing this info with us, and for the work of investigating in this art.

ana carina said...

Woooooow! I'm amazed!!

ArtMind said...

The things you find with buttons are simply amazing!

Carol Dean said...

I always learn something new from you, Petronella! Thank you :D These are wonderful!

Amanda Yu said...

so funny! great recourse! :)
thanks for sharing!

sue said...

Beautiful button blanket; i made my first button blanket, but it doesn't have as much detail.

Julie Fukuda said...

I am about to post a picture of a button blanket on my blog and enjoyed reading your post.

monnie said...

Just a litle FYI, the antique picture of thr First Nations people in the button blankets is a staged photo. First of all those are items which are only worn for ceremony, 2ndly, they do not fit them... and as Sigmosaics said...
they look started.. it is probably because these items they are wearing belong to someone else, they were taken from them and used in this picture just for the opportunity for some photographer to make a photo to send back to europe. This was done a lot back then. The somewhat startlet look would be because it was sacrilidge to wear someone elses crest, or even touch their sacred items without permission from the owner...

submitted respectfully for your education by a Metis lady & an Indigenous Studies Student of Camosun College.

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