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Explore the history, objects, meanings and techniques behind the art of the Coast Salish people native to the Pacific Northwest at http://www.burkemuseum.org/coastsalishart

Tools & Technologies

New tools and technologies have always been rapidly adopted and adapted by Northwest Coast artists as they become available. Iron blades have replaced stone, antler and beaver teeth on adzes and knives, though the form of these tools remains the same, and they are preferred for finish carving.

At the same time, chain saws and other power tools also enhance carvers' tool kits. Weavers still spin with spindles, but have also adapted power machines for spinning wool. Computer aided design and new media are also fully utilized by 21st century artists.

Here's a sampling of tools and techniques used by Coast Salish artists over the years. 

Weaving Textiles

  • Weaving

    During the 18th and 19th centuries, women used the wool of mountain sheep as well as dog wool sheared from small “wooly” dogs.

    “Clal-lum woman weaving a blanket,” Paul Kane, Royal Ontario Museum: In 1846, Paul Kane first painted a S’Klallam woman weaving a robe, while another woman was spinning wool in the background and a wooly dog sat in the foreground.

  • Cleaning

    The wool was cleaned by mixing it with diatomaceous clay that absorbed the lanolin from the raw goat wool, and beaten with long wooden wool swords to remove the clay.

    Cowichan Wool Sword, Burke Museum, cat. no. 1-10705

  • Spinning

    This Cowichan woman was photographed using a spindle with a whorl. The unspun roving goes up over a bar to create the tension needed to spin the wool, which is wrapped around the shaft as it is spun before it is wound around the finished ball of yarn.

    Squamish weaver named Selisya spinning wool, photographed at Musqueam by C. F. Newcombe in 1915. Courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Civilization

  • Loom

    Looms have two support posts and two rolling bars set into slots. The yarn is tied to a smaller bar and looped up, down and around the rolling bars, then wrapped around the third bar, reversing the direction until the desired width is achieved. Finally, the warp ends are released and the robe is removed.

    Loom and warping diagram, drawing by Kenneth Greg Watson, 2008 (Brotherton 2008: Fig. 10.7)

  • Twining

    Weaving is done with only the fingers. Plaiting is done with one horizontal weft yarn passing in front and behind the vertical warp yarns. Twining is done with two horizontal weft yarns one passing in front while the other passes behind the warp. This technique can be used to create a tighter weave and allows for elaborate geometric patterns to be created.



James Robe

By the end of the 19th century, twined mountain goat wool robes were gradually being replaced by commercial cloth. But in the 20th century, the old techniques were revived and many contemporary weavers of today make garments for ceremonial use and for participants in canoe journeys. Due to the difficulty in acquiring traditional materials today, most Coast Salish weavers use domestic sheep wool.

Lummi weavers, the late Fran James (1924-2013) and her son, Chief Bill James (Tsi'li'xw), revived spinning and weaving on the Lummi Reservation during the last half of the 20th century. Fran adapted an electrical machine to speed her spinning process.

Weaving Cattail Mats

Coast Salish women sewed cattail leaves together to form large mats that were used as room dividers, insulation, kneeling pads in canoes, sleeping mats, and temporary shelters. The leaves are laid out in parallel rows, and two tools, a mat creaser and a mat needle were used to pierce the leaves and pull a cattail thread through the hole to bind together the leaves. The mat creaser is pressed along the long needle when it is in the leaves, to form a crease that serves to hold the thread in place. The edges are braided.

Sewing Mats

Snohomish Mat

Sooke Mat

Mat Creaser

Weaving Basketry

Baskets were used for storage or for gathering berries, roots, clams and other foods. Coiled baskets were tight enough to be used for boiling soups and stews. There are three basic basketry techniques used by Coast Salish weavers: coiling, twining and plaiting.

For coiled baskets, cedar roots are peeled and split. The rough inner roots are bundled to make the foundation of the coil, and the smooth outer root is used as the sewing element. Coiling involves the use of an awl, a pointed bone tool, to push a hole through the coil below the bundle, the sewing element is pushed through this opening and tightened to attach the bundle to the coil below. Decorative elements made of cherry bark, dyed cedar bark, bear grass, or horsetail rhizomes, are folded and sewn down on the outside of the basket to form geometric patterns, in a technique called imbrication.

Siagut Basket

Coiling Diagram

Coiling Hands


The twining technique, also used in loom-weaving, involves two wefts (horizontal weaving elements) that cross in front and behind the vertical warps that form the foundation of the basket. Materials used in twined baskets include cattail leaves, cedar bark, and spruce roots. Designs are formed by overlaying a dyed weft or using wefts of different colors. Twined baskets are softer and more pliable than coiled baskets.

Clam Basket

Josh Basket



Coast Salish Adze

Carving Tools & Techniques

The adze is the most important carving tool used by indigenous carvers on the Northwest Coast. Many different styles of adzes were developed in ancient times, using ground stone blades made of a hard greenstone called jadite or nephrite.

Chisels were made of beaver teeth and elk horn. It is believed that iron blades were made from metal salvaged from Japanese shipwrecks that floated in on the currents before the first Europeans brought iron in greater quantities to trade for furs in the late 18th century.

Quinault D-Adze

Coast Salish carvers use two basic styles of adze, a short-handled “elbow” adze, and a D-adze, named for the shapes of the handles. These were used to carve canoes, smooth cedar house posts and planks, and rough-out bowls and spoons.

Finishing work is done with straight-bladed knives as well as “crooked knives” with curved blades that can hollow recessed areas. Today, carvers use chain saws and other power tools, but adzes and crooked knives are still used for carving.

Racing Canoes

Canoe Carving

Until the early 20th century, the main method of travel on the Northwest Coast was by canoe, and many different styles of canoes were used for different purposes.

It is believed that the Coast Salish style of canoe may have been ancestral to the northern Northwest Coast canoes. It is characterized by a vertical cutwater, upswept bow and outswept stern. A groove is carved along the inside rim of the gunwale and a notch is cut in the bow.

Canoes were carved from a single log, hollowed, steamed and spread in order to increase the width of the canoe, and bring the bow and stern up (see spreading diagram below). In addition to the Coast Salish traveling canoe with the notched bow, the people of the Salish Sea also used the ocean-going west coast canoe type, also used by Chinookan, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth tribes, as well as the flat, dugout shovel-nosed river canoe to pole up shallow rivers.

  • Canoe Types

    The Coast Salish people used three basic types: shovel nose canoes for river travel (top), Salish style canoes for travel, fishing, and hunting in the Salish Sea (middle), and Westcoast (or Nuu-chah-nulth) style canoes for long distance and ocean travel (bottom).

    Drawings by Kenneth Greg Watson, 2008 (Brotherton S'abadeb, 2008 Fig. 11.7: 253)

  • Spreading

    Canoe changes in spreading: top, typical Puget Sound canoe after spreading; bottom, typical Puget Sound canoe before spreading.

    Wright, Robin K. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, p. Wright: A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991: page 245, figure 6.

  • Bows

    Coast Salish canoe bow diagrams: top, Northern Gulf with vertically compressed prow and deep, angular cutwater; bottom, Puget Sound with slanted prow and rounded cutwater.

  • Diagram

    This diagram shows the features of the Puget Sound-Georgia Strait Salish canoe, based on Burke Museum canoe #1-167. From top: side view; view from above; waterline showing fine entry and run; cross section amidships.

    Drawings by Bill Holm, “Coast Salish Canoes,” in Wright (ed) A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, p. 242.

  • Photo

    Sixteen foot Snohomish Canoe, Burke Museum cat. no. 1-167.

Oliver Journey Canoe

Canoe Journeys

Motor vessels largely replaced cedar canoes on the coast in the early 20th century, but canoe racing remained a popular social event for Coast Salish tribes.

Since the first Paddle to Seattle event that took place in conjunction with the Washington State Centennial celebration in 1989, canoe journeys have become an annual event and have inspired the revival of traditional traveling canoes carved of cedar logs that are steamed and spread in the traditional way.

Canoe journeys also inspire the production of ceremonial regalia such as woven robes, cedar bark hats, and the carving of canoe paddles.