Over the last few years my attention has turned again and again to the colorful straps which often accompany the beautiful baskets of the Pacific Northwest. These straps are called tumplines and are used to carry baskets in a variety of ways while harvesting and traveling, most notably across the forefront of the head or around the shoulders when carrying a load on the back, relieving strain on the shoulders and aligning the weight with the spine. They are still in use today by indigenous people during berrypicking and root harvests, and by many backpackers and canoers who use commercially available straps to help alleviate the full load of a pack while hiking rough grounds and portaging.
The traditional tumplines were noted in early journals and painted by early artists during explorations in North and South America and were quickly adopted into use by Europeans. They are a testament to the weaving culture of the region from which they come, using strong fibers of each land; sometimes just strips of strong bark, others made using plant fiber twisted into the warps, then twined and woven with dyed wool or other cordage to create colorful patterns in a variety of designs.
A few years ago I travelled with a tribal community into traditional lands in the closed Cedar River Watershed outside of Seattle to harvest huckleberries at Yakima Pass, a historic crossing place between Snoqualmie and Yakama tribes. Polly Olson from the Yakama Nation joined us, and brought out her grandmothers berry basket and tumpline. She showed us the several ways that tumplines are used and I captured this image of her with the tumpline set up to harvest huckleberries. I was so intrigued by the many ways in which a tumpline could be used, not just to carry a load, but also to secure a berry basket in place while harvesting in brushy, hilly terrain, the typical habitat for mountain huckleberries.
The Snoqualmie Tribe was invited to visit the Burke Museum, where we were shown and handled objects in the collection known to be made by Snoqualmie people. One of those was a beautiful tumpline which was a thrill to see. My friend, John Mullen, a Snoqualmie tribal member invited me to look at baskets in his family collection, some woven by his mother (shown here). Attached to one of these baskets was another beautiful example of a tumpline, complementing one of the finest baskets I’ve ever seen.
These experiences focused my interest and I’ve been working towards learning the techniques used to make these tumplines as works of art. There is surprisingly little information available about this and I don’t personally know of anyone creating these in the traditional manner of this area. I recently was allowed to study some tumplines at the Karshner Museum in Puyallup, and just this week I was able to revisit the Burke to study baskets and was so pleased to further study the tumplines from Puget Sound area to gain further knowledge about their weaving techniques.
Tumplines are woven using long warp strands used to form the foundation of the strap. These warps are typically made using very strong two-ply cordage made from plant fiber. The area in the middle of the strap, which crosses the forehead and/or shoulders, is woven with a soft weaving, usually wool, to cushion the skin, usually ranging from 1″- 2” wide, by 12”- 28” long which tapers to a braided strap, about ¾” wide which then makes up the greater length of the strap. The overall length varies, from 6′ long to 12′ or so (3′-6′ on each side from the center). The preferred cordage used in the warp for this region appears to be made primarily from dogbane hemp and stinging nettle, sometimes maple bark, cedar and certainly other plants. The weavers that are used to form the cushioning and decorative area are predominantly dyed wool, perhaps left over from other weaving projects as it does not much to go a long way, or by using the same materials as the warp.
Cedar bark might also be used to make a tumpline, the model above uses a diagonal weave and I’ve seen others with a checkerboard weave incorporating beargrass for ornamentation. I created the one shown to experiment with the diagonal weave tapering to cordage made from cedar bark, though I haven’t actively used it in harvest yet.
Years ago I created a ‘Northwest Coast Weaving Activity’ for school classes, using a simple loom which replicates, at least conceptually, the ‘two-bar loom’ used by the Coast Salish which is an ingenious design allowing rotation of the weaving to remain in the center for ease of working. My school activity creates a little weaving very similar to a tumpline as it turns out, though on a much smaller scale. I also love to incorporate making natural dyes to create your own colorful wool yarn using native plants which can be used in this activity. I expanded on this concept with larger versions of this loom for my adult ethnobotany programs in an effort to reconstruct the techniques for creating tumplines. I have a delightful picture of my Yakama friend’s mom working on her woven strap as they are driving, which she started in my Fibers class last summer, which could not have pleased me more. Many others have created simple straps as we have teased out the techniques for making these beautiful objects which they’ve used as headbands, hat bands, basket straps and more.
I have learned that most of the Northwest coast tumplines designs are woven using a twined technique in weaving the pattern, occasionally a simple weft and warp weave going over and under one or two warps. The woven portion ends with a gradually or abrupt transition to a simple braid. The twined technique on warps is similar to the Ravenstail and Chilkat weaving of the northern tribes, as well as the twined basketry of the Sahaptin/ Columbia River area, using cordage or wool twined on cordage. Incredibly strong, this type of weaving creates opportunity for many patterns. I still am not sure what the traditional loom was, perhaps it was done on the large two-bar loom, or perhaps there was another method similar to the way ‘crios’ straps are made in Ireland (below).
Woven straps in other regions are often created using ‘finger weaving’ which is a very different technique, much documented, using a diagonal weave incorporating the warps as the weavers. I had the chance to watch weavers from the Eastern Band Cherokee creating their beautiful straps used for clothing, baskets and carrying loads using this technique.
In my research prior to my recent trip to Ireland I discovered the straps of Ireland, called Crios, a technique also nearly lost but now being preserved by a few weavers, and being used for items such as guitar straps, for ‘handfasting’ a symbol of marriage and belts for clothing, their traditional use. These are woven using a traditional warp and weft weave traditionally using a very basic loom which incorporated the feet and belt in holding a loom taut. I hope someday to have one custom made using colors symbolic to my recent trip to Ireland, and perhaps learn the skill myself to share with my Celtic friends.
It has been fun experimenting with weaving tumplines with ethnobotany students, incorporating natural dyes, creating looms, and learning weaving techniques. I recently completed a three day workshop with Alderleaf Wilderness School during which times students were able to finish some beautiful new tumplines. I couldn’t be more pleased to help bring this art form back into common use.
I will add to this post as time goes by and I discover new things!