Chilkat Dye Project

September 18, 2018

INTRODUCTION to the Chilkat Dye Project

shows detail of a Chilkat robe

Detail of Chilkat robe, showing face and four main colors: black, white, yellow and blue. Alaska State Museum collection II-B-1744

Are you a Chilkat weaver at any level of experience? Or have you studied these robes and want to share with weavers? Do you know things about natural dye technology that might help us? Please connect with us… the Chilkat Dye Working Group is exploring many facets of Chilkat weaving beyond the technical aspects of the grant…

A five-year $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has established the Pacific Northwest Conservation Science Consortium. The consortium is headquartered in the chemistry lab of Dr. Tami Lasseter Clare at Portland State University and includes five institutions:

  • Portland Art Museum (Samantha Springer, Jeannie Kenmotsu, Donald Urquhart, Kristin Bayans)
  • Seattle Art Museum (Nicholas Dorman, Geneva Griswold)
  • Alaska State Museum (Ellen Carrlee, Liana Wallace)
  • Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at U. of Oregon (Anne Rose Kitagawa, Chris White)
  • University of Washington Libraries (Justin Johnson, Stephanie Lamson)

The initial meeting of consortium members was August 16-17, 2018 in Portland. Among the projects proposed, Ellen Carrlee and Liana Wallace at the Alaska State Museum initiated a Chilkat Dye Project for analysis and identification of the dyes used on particular historic Northwest Coast Native Chilkat robes. Ethnographic sources and contemporary weavers describe some of the natural dyes used in the past, but there are few studies linking known robes to specific dyes. Research on organic dyes is beyond the scientific capacity of most museums. A working group of Chilkat weavers and museum staff meet monthly at the Alaska State Museum to share data and ideas.


  • Begin monthly meetings of Chilkat Dye Working Group
  • Inventory of the known historic and contemporary dyes typically used (ie hemlock bark, wolf moss etc) through oral history and literature review
  • Procuring samples for baseline analysis and sending to Portland
  • Development of a reference database for Chilkat dyes
  • Discuss project with consortium


  • Send samples from old robes to Portland for analysis and identification
  • Look for patterns to help interpret makers, locations, and dates for robes
  • Connect research to Regalia exhibit at Alaska State Museum, summer 2020
  • Consortium to meet in Juneau, summer 2020. Celebration? Public program?


  • Share knowledge, ie Clan Conference, Celebration, public programs, social media
  • Develop educational materials to enhance science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) education.
  • Publication of articles for various audiences

Contact: Ellen Carrlee

Chilkat salmon trout head detail of robe

Detail from Chilkat Robe in the Alaska State Museum, II-B-1744, showing what is sometimes called “salmon trout head” in the traditional Chilkat weaving colors of white, black, yellow, and blue.




Owen’s Rhubarb Fiber Experiments

July 19, 2018


Rhubarb grows well in the rainforest climate of Juneau, Alaska where Owen Hutchinson grew up. His mom, Anni Stokes, has made amazing rhubarb pies from her garden his whole life. The local handmade ice cream shop, Coppa, made its reputation on Marc Wheeler’s signature rhubarb sorbet and rhubarb sherbet. It has since branched out into devil’s club, salmon, and other flavors of place, but rhubarb is a perennial favorite with the regulars. Marc recently started using a bladder press to extract flavor from the rhubarb, and Owen saw potential in the beautiful dusky reddish pink and sage green smashed stalks leftover from the pressings. Fresh off an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, Owen’s thesis work involved some textile work and he was intrigued with the idea of using rhubarb fiber in his art. He gave me permission to share here some of his experiments in pulling out usable fiber material in the hopes that other folks out there might have some insights and suggestions about using non-traditional fiber sources like rhubarb.

dried peeled no treatment 6

Above is an image of the material he was able to hand strip from the pressed rhubarb…a lovely color, but time consuming to prepare and somewhat brittle.

kitty litter

To encourage drying, the sample in the cardboard box was put in kitty litter, but it became dull, brittle, and ugly.


A salted sample was somewhat easier to manipulate, and it was pliable and bright, though it still retains quite a bit of moisture at this point in the process…

retted week3

This promising-looking material was retted in water for a week. Retting is essentially controlled rotting, a method used for centuries to remove useful bast fibers from plants…the most widely known example is retting flax to make linen.

owen 2

The experiments are continuing. It is still not known how lightfast the lovely color might be. Here’s hoping other experimental souls out there with a passion for plant materials, fiber technology, and textiles might want to share helpful insights?


Cleaning Native Leather In Use?

January 29, 2018

0B36C027-6E3D-4D9E-8466-4CC46E728E8AThis beaded leather Athabascan vest is the subject of a recent question to the Alaska State Museum: tribal members want to know how to clean leather. The tribe is conducting interviews with members to record the meanings and origins of important regalia and taking photographs. This vest is the Chief’s vest, and still in active use. The tribe does not have a large number of cultural heritage pieces, making it rare and important. Elders still wear items of regalia like this, and some elders may “take them on their journey at their end of this life.” The Cultural Program Manager for the village traditional council is wondering how the normal soiling from years of use might be cleaned, and how they might provide ongoing care for things like this.  We need to take into consideration museum care standards but also the cultural need to continue using the vest.

I love this question because we are hearing it more and more at the Alaska State Museum…how to support the care of objects in active cultural use? On the one hand, there are commercial products that might reduce some of the stains seen here, but those chemicals might shorten the longevity of the leather. Proprietary commercial products often contain extra chemicals that are not useful and can be harmful, and the strength of the active ingredients can be much more harsh than we would use in a museum setting. In the museum setting, the prevention protocols would be very strict and we’d be aiming to preserve this vest for around 500 years.


I’m not certain the exact leather technology we are seeing in the photo, but if I had to guess I would think perhaps a Native-tanned moosehide (perhaps similar to the technique currently being collaboratively studied at the Anchorage Museum…keep an eye out for the report on that project). The thickness, color, and Athabascan origin make me think it might be moosehide. You can see a fuzzy suede-like layer on the front of the vest, and a grain layer on the interior of the vest. If a leather is flexible, everything but the grain layer is like a felted tangle of collagen (skin protein) fibers. The grain layer is the layer that had the fur…the layer we typically see on the outside of a motorcycle jacket or baseball glove. Some Native-tanned leathers have the grain layer removed. But behind the grain is that felt-like tangle. The suede-like part. The flexibility of leather is maintained by the tanning process which lubricated the fibers to prevent them from binding up with each other. This happens BEFORE the leather is dried, which is part of why WE DON’T USE LEATHER DRESSINGS:

Here’s the tricky part…the cleaning techniques conservators like to use on leather are usually done dry (things like vacuuming, the dry use of soot sponges or urethane sponges, gentle cleaning with unvulcanized rubber such as Groom/Stick or vinyl such as a white eraser…) These can be a little bit abrasive, pull up fibers, or deposit crumbs of the cleaning sponge in the structure of the leather, but it is hard to cause serious damage with those techniques. Unfortunately, those techniques don’t tend to get rid of greasy soiling, such as from body oils, sweat, or food residues. In order to remove that kind of soiling, conservators might turn to wet techniques (distilled water with various substances added to enhance cleaning, detergents, solvents etc). But the danger in going with wet cleaning is that the things intentionally put in the leather during its manufacture that keep it supple and soft can ALSO be cleaned right out or moved around by wet techniques. This can result in stiff, shrunken, darkened, or distorted leather. It could also cause the stains to simply move around or go deeper into the leather and not actually come out.   In other words, the kind of aggressive techniques needed to make stains like that come out might actually make things worse. Museums often accept a certain level of use-related staining as part of the object’s history. This might not be appropriate for ongoing cultural purposes.

I put this posting out on the blog here to stimulate discussion about the risks and possibilities for cleaning and caring for this kind of item. It is more precious and special than most of the things in our closets at home, but it is also unreasonable to expect museum-level protection for something that is still in active service. I think where we are headed is for folks with museum expertise to provide as much USEFUL information as possible to the folks tasked with caring for these items, and empower them to pursue the kinds of solutions that work in their communities. I’ll provide an update to this post when the conversation has gone further…

UPDATE 2/3/2017:

I asked others in the objects conservation profession for ideas on this cleaning dilemma, and as usual my colleagues were very generous with their knowledge and advice. Choices for cleaning this vest include a wide range of options, each with pros and cons. On the most conservative end of the spectrum is the possibility of doing nothing, and accepting the “wear polishing” as a confirmation of the history, heritage, and authenticity of the garment. Next gentlest is the use of relatively crumb-free cleaners used dry, such as white foam cosmetic sponges, or “soot” sponges marketed under such names as Absorene, Smoke-off, and Gonzo. Sometimes soot sponges (vulcanized rubber sponges) do leave some crumbs, but they are often sizeable and easy to vacuum off. Someone suggested there might be risk of removing or reducing possible smoke tanning in the leather with a soot sponge. Dry, powdery cleaners were also suggested for soaking up the oily staining: warm dry cornmeal, baking soda, corn flour, Fuller’s Earth, or powdered erasers were mentioned. Any of those would then need to be removed from the surface, and might be difficult to remove entirely or might leave a residue. For example, corn flour might leave a scum of corn oil? A thin absorbent tissue in between might reduce the residue transfer, but might also block absorptive action. Removing the powdered cleaners might be trickier than expected, and enough suction to remove the powder could also remove some leather fibers. Somewhat more aggressive is the suggestion that roughing up the surface to scatter the light might help the stain look lighter, even if it did not go away. For example, gently rubbing the surface in a rotary motion with a paintbrush, or even micro-abrading the surface with a scalpel under a binocular microscope. On the most aggressive end of the spectrum were techniques that might use petroleum distillates such as Naptha or white spirit to dissolve the oil, or other water/detergent or solvent-based cleaning options. There were even suggestions of solvent cleaning mixed with lecithin to replace fats that might be pulled from the leather by solvents. Oily substances are both a stain component but also a natural part of the leather. The “wet” cleaning techniques offer the highest risk for damage in the form of stain movement, tidelines, stiffening of the leather, matting of the surface, or other undesirable effects. The wet techniques are most likely to give dramatic results, but come with the most dramatic risks too. Anything attempted along those lines (or the use of commercially available leather cleaners) should perhaps start with a really tiny area inside the pocket? Testing inside the pocket is a good idea with any technique. What this all comes down to is the ultimate goal the community has for the cleaning of this vest, and comfort caretakers have for the risks. Museums can share the ideas and techniques used in the conservation lab, but my goal is to make an object last for 500 years and that might not be the purpose of this particular vest. One final thought …investment is often made in retaining skills, relationships, and knowledge about technologies so new beaded leather vests can be made, too. There are Athabascan beaders and skin sewers who know how to make new vests, and this is a complementary preservation technique too. Thank you to everyone who shared in this conversation! I hope to post another update later on…



Glass Photo “Mammoth” Plates?

September 13, 2017

IMG_2875So, my photography-loving friends, what are “mammoth plates” and do these count? Glass measures 24″ x 20″ and framed they are 26″ x 22″. They are a lot like lantern slides because they have some sort of emulsion trapped between two sheets of glass and the image is hard to see without light shining through it. But when you do shine the light oh my! Because of their size, the detail and relationship to the viewer is impressive. Are these rare? Is the technique itself compelling? They were cataloged into our collection in the 1960s, and the database suggests they are “dry plate” or “transparency” but I’m not sure those are the correct terms for the photographic process used.

We are considering pursuing treatment of this collection of 1903 images by the Miles Brothers. Seems these photographers came to Alaska during the gold rush at the behest of a railroad company and took pictures meant to attract investors? It was probably the Valdez, Copper River and Tanana Railroad Company. We believe the images were later displayed at the AYPE (Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition) in Seattle in 1909.  The Miles Brothers are better known for their early motion picture work, and had a studio in San Francisco. The negatives from this Alaska venture were apparently lost in a fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

I don’t know if we’ve got a complete set here, probably not. Our first image is from  Southeast Alaska, and then they seemed to go up to the Valdez area and headed for the Yukon River and finally out to the Bering Sea. The sequence below is my best guess, corrections welcome.


Taku Glacier on Taku Inlet. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-9. Note the strange brown bubbled area in the middle. Can this be fixed?

ASM_UA-UC_136 Merged

Glory Hole of Treadwell Mine. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA-UC-136. This plate is broken and the glass itself would need repair


Hawkins Point on the White Pass & Yukon Railway. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-14


Fort Liscum, Military Fort on Valdez Bay 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-138. I noticed online there is a nice image of this at the Anchorage Museum, apparently belongs to the Cook Inlet Historical Society. I don’t know if it is a print or something large like this.

ASM_No Number 2

Valdez in 1903. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum. Strange brown stain, could this be burned? Also, the shattered flaking in the sky is seen on several of the images, but often in lighter areas?

ASM_No Number 3

Pioneer’s Home and Garden at Valdez. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum

ASM_No Number 1

Crossing Copper River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum


Tonsina Crossing on the Trail Between Valdez and Fairbanks. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-11


Horses Crossing the Kotsina, A Branch of the Copper (?) River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-133


On Elliott Creek, Copper River District. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-10


Typical Prospector’s Camp. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-13. Another one with a broken edge. You can see we propped these up on a light table just to get some record of what they look like…



Fire Department at Circle. Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-360. The hands give a sense of scale for these glass plates. The scale gives an intimacy to the image beyond a normal sized photo.


Detail from Fire Department at Circle, Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-390. Note how the message on the fence says, “RING LIKE H-L IN CASE OF FIRE.”


Another detail from Fire Department at Circle City. Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-390. Look at that good dog! How about the moustache/beard?


Detail of the wood and copper framing typical of those that have frames


Star City on the Yukon River. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-12. Note the uneven lighting behind this one, makes the image hard to read. This one is on exhibit right now, and the light bars behind it are not so bad in person.

ASM V-C-12

Detail from Star City on the Yukon River 1903.     Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-12. Look at the fur and the texture of the harness!


The Garden of Pioneers in Interior. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-139. Note the paper stuck to the back of this one. Many of these are missing the back piece of glass, making them very vulnerable.



Pioneer Cabin. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-134. Look! This one has been hand colored. In some areas you can see fingerprints.


Sunset on the Yukon. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-8


Eskimo Children of St Michael. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-135. Unfortunately, the area of two of the faces is completely missing here.


Eskimos Carving Ivory…Reindeer Camp. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-132


Ducks…near Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-138. Note the strange rounded damage areas near the bottom center. Is this mold perhaps?


Sunset at Nome. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum V-C-15


Winter Came to the Arctic Sea. 1903 Miles Bros image, Alaska State Museum UA/UC-131


Chinese Chests on the Northwest Coast

August 4, 2017

IMG_1459This posting is a gift for a certain clan caretaker and woodworker who is interested in making some of these chests. It is easy to find photos of the exterior. This post is heavy on the visuals and interiors, to help understand the construction technique.

These chests are ubiquitous in museum collections that include Tlingit and Haida material culture, even small museums in Southeast Alaska tend to have several of them. Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson has a research file on these chests, and added the following information into the museum’s database regarding them:

“These chests were made in China beginning in the mid 1800s or earlier for the export market. They were popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the Victorian era. In Alaska, these chests were very popular among the Tlingit and Haida people, who used them for storage of ceremonial regalia, clothing, and other property. The resins in the camphorwood were believed to have repelled moths and other insects. There are two basic forms of Chinese camphorwood chests that were traded in Alaska: one made of varnished boards, and the other made of boards covered with painted pigskin. Both have brass hardware and reinforcements on the corners and edges. The pigskin covered chests are also decorated with rows of brass tacks, which usually outline the brass fittings…. To save room in the ships’ holds, the chests came in at least 3 sizes, and designed to nest together; the smallest chest contained a stash of Chinese tea. The earliest visual representation of these chests is a drawing by I.G. Voznesenskii of a Sitka potlatch ca. 1844; other seafarers mention purchasing chest in China even earlier.”

ASM 92-13-1 from Yakutat 37″L x 17 1/2″W x 16 1/2″H

Here is one with no painted pigskin on the outside. Nice dovetail details in the corners.


ASM 91-48-1 from Old Kasaan, early 1800s. 33″ L x 16″W x 14 1/2″ H

Another plain one, no tack holes so we know it never had pigskin covering. Sometimes things that are a little damaged reveal the most about methods of manufacture. The way the corners are done on this one is really nice. Also, you can see how the brass parts are set in…the wood is ever so slightly recessed so the whole surface will be flush after the brass is added.



ASM 90-17-1 from Sitka, the Wolf House, Gootch Hit. 1790-1850.

38 1/2″L x 18 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H

One more plain one without leather. Notice how the lock mechanism is similar on the three plain ones. Also, this one seems to have a repaired area on the lid? Generally each side of these chests was a single big plank. On all the chests the lock on the front face is met along the edge with a beveled feature on the wood.



ASM III-O-128 unknown provenance 34 1/2″L x 17 1/2″W x 15 1/2″H

Most of the painted ones I have seen are green or red, with perhaps red being more common? The foliage design I have once or twice seen on carved silver bracelets. I guess camphorwood is the equivalent of cedar in some ways, highly aromatic and with an insect repellent quality to it. That would be quite important in keeping pests away from wool robes, furs, feathers, and other elements on regalia that might be at risk for infestation.


ASM 95-37-4-3 from Wrangell 23 1/4″L x 11 1/2″W x 9 1/2″H

This one is the baby brother of the two that are on display in the first image. This size is the smallest of the typical sizes, and you’ll see the underside is different. No “feet” on this one. This seems typical of the small ones.


ASM II-B-1584 unknown provenance 39 1/2″L x 20 1/4″W x 18 1/2″H

This is the largest one in the Alaska State Museum collection. You’ll see the back is undecorated. That seems typical, too. Front, sides, and lid tend to have the foliage decoration (sometimes including birds) but I have not seen the back decorated.



II-B-1367 unknown provenance 35″L x 17 1/4″W x 15 1/2″H

The leather and the wood react to changes in humidity differently, but they are not allowed to move independently because they are tacked all together by the brass tacks and trim. Consequently, almost all of these pigskin-covered chests I have seen have extensive tears in them. Treatment-wise, the most straightforward repair would be to insert a layer behind the tear that would match, and tack the edges to it as best as possible. The chain on this one is not original. Typically they have hardware like the previous one.







Thin brittle furskins?

February 15, 2017



Hi Folks!


Looking for some input on approaches to thin brittle skins of small furbearing creatures. I’m thinking of garments made of rabbit, hare, and arctic ground squirrel in particular, where the skins are sewn together and we often see tears through aged or brittle skin that threatens the integrity of the garment. Included here are some specific images and examples.


ASM 20098-18-1 seal parka with a rabbit or hare trim. There are tears in the ringed seal skin, but it is the disintegrating cuffs that trouble me more treatment-wise.





Below are some images of a coat that belonged to beloved photographer Michio Hoshino.  The garment has some substantial tears that make exhibition difficult.




I know there are many people in Alaska who have beautiful parkas still in use and much treasured, and when they begin to tear there are difficult decisions about when and if to wear them as well as whether they can be passed down to daughters and granddaughters for continued use. Sometimes the skins are still flexible, and other times they are brittle and cracking. For the reasonably supple ones, lining with Reemay and BEVA 371 film is a decent approach. But brittle skins of course have a lower shrinkage temperature due to degradation and heat set adhesives are more risky. For garments that are bearing the stress of their own weight or will be in active use, maybe there is a way to stabilize the damage while also making the garment more robust, perhaps with a supplementary lining that extended to more stable seams. Looking forward to your thoughts!

SLAM PROJECT 2016: Oil and Timber Section

May 5, 2016

Hi Folks!

It has been more than a year since I last posted, and it would be an understatement to say we are working hard. SO much has happened in the past year! I promised myself I’d keep this one short and just get blogging again, so here is a glimpse of conservation from the Oil and Timber Section we recently installed. YES installed, Opening Day is June 6!


How about this gorgeous chainsaw? Gotta start with an image of Alaska State Museum registrar Andrew Washburn, we’ve been with the artifacts through the whole process and keeping track of the info at breakneck pace. Documentation!!! And really interesting conversations about the strangeness of the out-of-context museum world and what it means for artifact interpretation. In conservation, we have been endeavoring to make industrial objects look reasonably cared for without removing evidence of their useful life. Andrew’s pose captures our discussion about which way the blade faces.


Iron! Here we have a couple of boom chains. The blacker one was treated with OSPHO and the lighter one got a tannic acid treatment. Most of the iron that needed help from the collection got tannic acid and stayed brownish. The brown boom chain was the one selected for exhibition. Incidentally, there were some prop desk legs also treated with OSPHO…they accidentally got wet and a tough white substance showed up on the surface. So difficult to remove! Anyone have experience with that white crust? In general, I wouldn’t OSPHO a museum object but if a blackish appearance is desired a controlled phosphoric acid like OSPHO does the trick. If the white crust had happened on a museum object, that would have been a disaster.



A giant round of spruce. For many many years this was an exhibit prop in the old museum and treated as such. When I came on staff in 2006, it was strapped to the basement wall and only recently been added to the permanent collection. This sturdy iron support had been added years ago to support a large crack. Note all the disfiguring drips.


Most invasive treatment of my life: I took a Festool sander to the face of this spruce round to remove severe staining. I’ll spare you the long in-house decision making process that made that choice even possible, but suffice to say I am in love with Festool now. When the spruce round had been an exhibit prop, there were also large holes drilled to mark certain rings as a timeline. Paintings conservator Gwen Manthey is shown here filling and inpainting those holes. There were four holes, but I dare you to find them now!


Here is the jacket Click Bishop wore back in his days working on the oil pipeline. Yes, that Click Bishop, the Alaska State Senator. There are pants and hat with this outfit too. Here is an image of humidifying the pocket flaps so they would lay flat when the mannequin was dressed.