The nearest approach to weaving among our Indians was the making of the rabbit-skin robe. Morice [The History of the Northern Interior of British Columbia] says that the weaving of these could hardly be more primitive. It is obvious that the good Father had never done any weaving! The most primitive weaving pattern was the “tabby” weave in which the weft of horizontal threads passed over one and under the next length-wise or warp thread, leaving the latter exposed over half of the surface. This is the plain weave of a dishtowel, or a cotton pillowcase or a plain blanket.
Somehow the Indian women had found out about a weave very well suited to hand weaving. A strong rough warp thread was completely covered on both sides by weaving with two weft threads at the same time and twisting the threads between each pair of warps, thus!
It was slow, but it was the most efficient use of the materials at hand. Some tribes supposed to be much more civilized are said never to have achieved anything more difficult than tabby weaving. The textile made in the Beaver way was actually twice as thick, and because it trapped more air, more than twice as warm.
The first step is, of course, to secure enough skins to make the desired size. A small blanket requires 85 rabbit skins. As rabbit was a staple food in winter, it would not take too long to gather that many skins.
The skin was cut into long strips by starting at the outside, and cutting spirally to the centre converting a skin into the longest possible strip. These strips were about one inch wide or less if a thinner weave were needed for a jacket of baby wrap. The next step was making the “yarn” by rolling the strip around a thin rod one-half inch in diameter. When pulled off the rod, the twist brings all the fur outside and natural shrinkage as it dries keeps the twist in the skin. The strips will be sewn together with sinew of babiche, and wound into balls or tied in skeins.
When weaving is about to begin a frame of saplings is tied together in a rectangular form and either supported on a frame like that for an A-frame or leaned up against a building. Strips of skin are then lashed along top and sides to form the framework for the robe. Since the work was likely to be done in winter when the fur was prime, a mat of brush would be laid down for the weaver to stand on.
Next, long strips of babiche (or narrow strips of raw hide) would be passed over the top bar and under the bottom, again and again—then spaced according to the desired looseness of the weave. Enough space would be left to twist the yarn once between each pair of weft threads. When the loom was covered with vertical threads from one side to the other, the weaving began.
European weavers start at the bottom edge and work up—away from the body, and they beat the crosswise threads or weft down to make a compact cloth. The Indian, weaving standing up, walks up to the top of the frame, which slants downward, and weaves from top to bottom, never beating the cross threads together. Expert fingers alone are used.
A second strand is now knotted to the tail end of the last warp thread on the left-hand top corner. There is now has a double thread which the weaver twists between the warps- it is slow and tedious work. When the loom is full, the lashings which held the first strips to the frame are cut and the blanket falls off, with its edges self-finished. Such a robe now commands a fantastic price from northern tourists and travelers.
The Beaver Magazine (winter 1958) from which notes for this article are taken, says that the Cree may not use the warp-woof method. Their web is said to be a kind of netting or loop-through-loop “stitch” which “sets firmly and will not unravel.” It could be made any length.
Children’s jackets were also made — usually a new one each winter. Older folk could make one last four or five years, by which time it would be practically hairless.