My mother taught me to weave in the traditional way. I didn’t fully realize her strategy until she passed away in December 2016, at only 60 years old. She left me holding the weft strands.
For as long as I can remember, my mother, Clarissa Rizal, invited me to do whatever she was doing. I started hand-sewing cotton pouches at four years old. I was sewing buttons shortly after. She showed me how to glue down and sew buttons on the ceremonial regalia she was making, I put thousands of cones on the ends of her weaving warp fringes. Then I was splitting cedar bark, thigh-spinning warp, washing and grooming the balls (trimming the bark ends out of the warp) helping her hand-dye yarns, wind balls. All the steps before weaving.
Around the time I started spinning warp, she helped me warp up my first project. A pair of Ravenstail leggings. Mostly I resisted. I wanted to go hang with my friends. I remember her insisting, “Oh no, you weave four rows before you go gallivanting around.” I wove one dance-legging too tight and it tapered in near the ankle, and the other came out perfectly straight. I never mounted them on anything, and I think she turned the straight one into the back side of a tunic top. I found the tapered one in the ‘unfinished weavings’ tote after her passing. She saved my first ever weaving.
In 2010, after I had finished my first entire Ravenstail ensemble, my mother invited me to assistant-teach a Chilkat class. I told her, “Uh, yeah, but I don’t weave Chilkat. How am I supposed to help?” She told me to just copy whatever she said and did. At the end of those two weeks, she said, “Now you’re a Chilkat weaver.” Sneaky. She was sneaky!
I finished my Chilkat headband shortly after that. Then she informed the Portland Art Museum that I could weave them a Chilkat Robe, so they’d have a trace-able teaching lineage of Chilkat Weaving. Clara Benson, Jennie Thlunaut, Clarissa Rizal, and Lily Hope, all in their permanent collection. I was flabbergasted. “I have four kids. What are you talking about? I can weave a robe?” She said, “Trust me, it will be your sanity saver. This is a gift, this Chilkat weaving.” It has been. It is. Every day. Thank you, Mama.
The first six months of weaving the Lineage Robe for Portland Art Museum, my mother and I would weaving right next to each other. If she was in Juneau, we’d work side by side on our projects. If not, we’d Facetime for hours. I’d initially call her with a “does this need two more warps?” Or “How far over should this go?” Then we’d set our phones face-up on our thighs and talk and weave together. Her on her last robe, and me on my first. Hours flew by with our hands flying through weft strands and braids.
October 2016, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 liver and colon cancer. The doctor told her to go home and “watch the deer.” Chemo or surgery wouldn’t prolong her life. I told my husband that I’d like to go be with her for a couple weeks. He said we would be moving to Colorado to be with her until she stood up again or she passed away. He’s a smart man. He also lost both his parents to colon/liver cancer. We moved. I helped my sister care for our mother. She lived 28 days after our arrival. And then we had her estate to sort through. And the memories. And I still had a robe to finish.
About six weeks after her passing, I set up my loom in my sister’s studio and tried to weave. All I could do was cry. I wanted to weave so badly the whole time she was ill, and now I couldn’t do it without her. No FaceTime. No simultaneous hands flying.
I called my weaver friend Ricky and told him I couldn’t weave. He reminded me of what I had told him the year his brother unexpectedly passed away. Same issue. He couldn’t weave without breaking down. I had said, “Go to the back of the loom and put up the braids. Our weavings are the veil between the spirit and physical worlds.” Ricky repeated the same to me. I spent nearly a week putting up the braids on the back side of my loom. With no tears.
As I sat behind my loom on the seventh day, a wave of memories pushed through my entire body. Like a tidal wave of all the good memories, the joy, our laughter, our time spent together. Maybe only a few seconds counted but it was just like the movies where I felt our life memories in fast-forward, and then whoooosh, I was clear. I could weave again. No more braids.
The next day I returned to the front of my loom. I gave thanks for this gift of Chilkat weaving in my life. I silently asked my Mama to be with me and guide my hands if I forgot. Thank you, Mama, for leading me to this work. I’m grateful every day.