Back To Schedule
Thursday, May 16 • 8:30am - 9:00am
(Textiles) An On-Going Mystery: Copper Kettles & Chilkat Blue

Log in to save this to your schedule, view media, leave feedback and see who's attending!

The source of the blue colorant found in Chilkat blankets woven by the Tlingit peoples in NW Alaska has been a source of confusion for decades. In 1907, U.S Navy Lt. G.T. Emmons (and anthropologist Franz Boas) wrote papers on the Chilkat blanket (in Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History) suggesting that blue-green coloration was the product of fetid urine in copper vessels which was later supplanted by aniline dyes. The paper was reported by W.D. Darby in 1917 to American industrial dyers (Color Trade Journal), to Canadians by D. Leechman (Transactions, Royal Society of Canada, 1932), and summarized again by Leechman (Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Dye plants and Dyeing: a Handbook, 1964). In 1982, Cheryl Samuel thoughtfully tried to update and accommodate this reportage with research of the Canadian Conservation Institute and the University of British Columbia, who found the blue to be indigo, free of copper, they also reported that urine treated copper was fugitive to wool. Yet, in 1988, colleagues at the Canadian Museum of History found all the dyes in an early 19th century Chilkat tunic were fugitive to water. When four National Museum of Natural History Chilkat textiles were analyzed by portable XRF for mordants in 2006, the blue dyes, like the yellow colorants, lacked a mordant level of copper. We have recently analyzed blue fibers from three NMAI Chilkat blankets using direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (DART-MS) and found urea, isatin, indoxyl, and indigo. A re-reading of Emmons in reprint form included appendices of corrections for language, plant, and bird identifications. Amendments also seem relevant for the dyeing procedures he describes. Dye literature by dyers, routinely describe about the coppery green appearance of the leuco (aka reduced, white) form of the indigo vat. Modern literature on lant and reduction reinforce the distinctive processes associated with the various forms of reduction fermentation. These were quickly superseded in the early 1900’s by a newly available commercial sodium dithionite. By revisiting older literature, records, and dyeing procedures with a clearer understanding, and the actual objects with new technologies, some of the confusions about the colorants in Chilkat blankets now may be resolved.

avatar for Mary W. Ballard

Mary W. Ballard

Conservator, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute
EducationB.A. Wellesley (1971)M.A. and Diploma in Conservation New York University Institute of Fine Arts (1979)Additional coursework: North Carolina State University, College of TextilesResearch Specialties and InterestsInterested in coloration of textiles and in the evidence of... Read More →

avatar for G. Asher Newsome

G. Asher Newsome

Physical Scientist, Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute
G. ASHER NEWSOME received his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He has studied a wide variety of analytes using novel mass spectrometry methodologies, and since joining the Smithsonian in 2017 he has been developing ambient techniques for... Read More →
avatar for Susan Heald

Susan Heald

Textile Conservator, National Museum of the American Indian
Susan Heald has been the National Museum of the American Indian’s textile conservator since 1994, where she has supervised many pre-program interns and post-graduate fellows. Prior to NMAI, she served as the Minnesota Historical Society’s textile conservator, and was a Smithsonian... Read More →

Thursday May 16, 2019 8:30am - 9:00am EDT
Oneida/Penobscot Rooms Sky Convention Center, Mohegan Sun
  Specialty Session, Textiles
  • Track Textiles
  • Ticketed Included in Main Registration
  • Authors in Publication Order Mary W. Ballard, G. Asher Newsome, and Susan Heald
  • Abstract ID 19052
  • Tags Chilkat blanket,Tlingkit,natural dyes,indigo,indigo processing