Button Blankets

Button Blankets

Button Blankets
Art historians are unsure precisely when or where the earliest Pacific Northwest button blankets were created.  However, in 1844 when a Russian sketched the funeral of a Tlingit chief, some of the mourners were wearing them.
The Northwest Coast button blanket is a ceremonial robe that is entirely a product of white contact.  That is, it did not exist in prehistoric times.  It developed when its materials became available through trade: woolen blankets, flannel and mother-of-pearl buttons from China.

Trade buttons were introduced about 1850, and craftspeople quickly became discriminating: buttons of saltwater pearl shell were prized more than those cut from freshwater shells, because the former had more color. 
The button blanket art form took hold quickly, and by the end of the 19th century had spread over much of the coast.  It took much less time and skill to create a button blanket from existing fabric than a Chilkat blanket which had to be woven from scratch from dgo wool or mountain goat wool. The “ground” of the typical button blankets was a dark blue Hudson’s Bay Co. blanket.  Scarlet wool flannel was used to create a broad border around three sides.  In the center of this frame was sewn the heraldic design of the important person who would own and wear the blanket; the crest was rendered in fabric appliqué or entirely in glistening mother-of-pearl buttons.

Today the crests may be cut from the best quality wool felt, and then completely covered in beadwork, creating a raised, textured surface. 
Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska are actively creating button blankets today, for such occasions as weddings or raising of a totem pole and for dance performances.  The blankets are worn draped over the shoulders like heavy capes.  Buttons and loops or hooks and eyes secure them over the chest.

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