What is it?
This button blanket was made by an American Indian artist from the Northwest Coast. Button Blankets were typically used as ceremonial robes and were often given as gifts at ceremonial potlatches for use as ceremonial robes. They are worn over the back. Before contact with Europeans, blankets were made from shredded cedar bark, dog fur or wool. After the introduction of trade blankets to the Kwakwaka’wakw by the Hudson Bay Company, artists began designing the cloth with crest designs done in red flannel appliqué, and abalone shell beads/buttons. Today, button blankets are a highly regarded art form.
What inspired it?
“Button blankets are important. When you wear your blanket people immediately know who you are and what house you come from.”—button blanket seamstress Fanny Smith.
The designs on the blankets are narrative art that signal the owners’ tribe identity, status, and hereditary rights and privileges. Ravens, bears, and whales are just a few examples of animals that are incorporated in the design of the blankets. Button Blankets are often used as ceremonial clothing, and are still used in ceremonies today; imagine the stunning visual effect of flickering firelight reflecting off the iridescent buttons of robed dancers. The increased presence of Button Blankets in Northwestern communities was due to the availability of the materials through cross-cultural contact in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For example, the Europeans would trade the wool blankets in exchange for items like animals pelts.
How is it made?
“When I am working on button blankets, I feel that I’m ‘sculpting on cloth,’ my scissors being like a chisel and hammer to a sculptor.”—artist Dorothy Grant
Button Blankets are often made by stitching red fabric designs onto black wool blankets. These images are then decorated with buttons made from materials including shells, such as abalone, and pearl buttons. The buttons, in a number of cases, are stitched in a series and not individually. This is either done by means of a running stitch or a back stitch (both methods pictured).
In addition to these materials, some contemporary examples can also include plastic buttons, beads, and metal decorations. Button blankets are most often created collaboratively. One person designs the robe, and another sews. Today, button blankets are a highly regarded art form.
The simplified color palette with the predominantly red, black, and white, with glimmers of color from the shells, allow for the blanket’s intricate design to stand out with a vibrant presence. The contrasting colors, combined with the large scale, can grab the viewer’s attention, even from a distance.
The combination of geometric and representational shapes create visually compelling designs. The imagery found on the button blanket serves as an identifier of one’s status and position within the group.
Since Button Blankets are meant to drape upon one’s shoulders, like a cloak or a cape, the size of the blanket should be large enough to wrap loosely around the body. Combined with the large, graphic imagery and bold colors, the blanket strikes a bold, commanding presence.
The design of this blanket resembles the raven motif that is found throughout Northwestern tribes on totem poles, bentwood boxes, and other forms of art. Stories that incorporate this bird as a character often share the histories, culture, and life lessons among the different Northwestern tribes. The raven is usually characterized with a large, curved beak, head turned to the side, and two outstretched wings.