In photos: Snuneymuxw women teach the art of wool weaving

At a recently-opened learning centre, community members craft intricate designs with the help of experienced mentors
Stephanie Thomas, whose traditional name is Naalthwiik, wears a blanket she weaved. Her niece, Chenoa Point, says a blanket like this can take up to 300 hours. Photo by Anna McKenzie

On a cool November evening, a group of six students are gathered at the Snuneymuxw Learning Academy to learn the art of Coast Salish wool weaving.

The quiet darkness of outside quickly dissipates when entering the bright classroom filled with conversation and laughter. There are looms of varying sizes, and the students eagerly return to their individual weaving projects. 

Located on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, the learning academy was once an elementary school. Now, since reopening earlier this year, it’s a hub for engaging with the Snuneymuxw way of life: the Hul’qumi’num language, songs, traditional medicine making, cedar weaving and — tonight — wool weaving.

Stephanie Thomas has been weaving with both cedar and wool for 30 years. Her mother helped to bring weaving back to Snuneymuxw in the 1980s. Photo by Anna McKenzie

This is the space that Chenoa Point and her aunt Stephanie Thomas have curated to teach their Snuneymuxw kin and Coast Salish relatives the practice of weaving. This weekly class, which started back in October, is generations in the making. The sessions quickly filled up and Point and Thomas hope it will be the first of many to be hosted at the centre.

Point explains that the practice of traditional weaving was almost lost during colonization. However, revitalization efforts by xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people in the 1980s kept the practice alive — and crossed the waters to Snuneymuxw by way of the late Margaret Pointe, Stephanie’s sister. 

As she spins, Chenoa explains that after you spin the wool once, you then shock it in a big pot of hot water for two minutes. The wool is then drained and put in a bucket of cold water to strengthen it. Photo by Anna McKenzie

The original weaving process included washing, separating, teasing, and carting the wool, followed by spinning. Before European contact, a spindle whorl was used to spin the wool. 

Now, Point and Thomas guide their students to spin the wool using a wooden table and spinner, with a foot pedal. 

Selisya, a weaver from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm , uses a traditional spindle whorl. Photograph by Charles F. Newcombe. Supplied by the Royal BC Museum/BC Archives; PN 83

“When we first started weaving, I wanted to see these blankets back in our Big House, ” says Thomas, whose traditional name is Naalthwiik. 

“The first thing I did was a speaker blanket for someone to use in the Big House. My goal is to have as many of these as I can make for our families.” 

Thomas now sees her work, and the work of her students, when she enters the Big House. Kin rest on woven sitting blankets, speakers are adorned with woven blankets that sit like sashes over their shoulders. There are also lap blankets, shawls, drum bags, purses, headbands and belted skirts. 

Image caption: Point says that procuring wool is a challenge now. Colourful yarn is often used along with the wool. Photo provided by Chenoa Point
Photo by Anna McKenzie

Thomas speaks softly about her craft, yet the impact she’s made through weaving has created waves all over the world. She has shared her knowledge at conferences in Hawaii and New Zealand. One of her blankets was even gifted to the Dalai Lama during a visit to xʷməθkʷəy̓əm in 2014.

Chenoa, whose traditional name is Kwasilwit, coaches her student softly to go “over over under under.” She says that weaving is relevant to her people’s way of being, and it’s an exciting time to have people come to learn and weave. Photo by Anna McKenzie

Once used as currency and a signifier of wealth, Coast Salish people once raised woolly dogs, whose wool was utilized for their respective weaving projects. 

Snuneymuxw people and surrounding communities raised their own woolly dogs, or used mountain goat hair originally. However the dogs became extinct, and other traditional types of wool are harder to come by, so colourful pieces of yarn are now often used.

Stephanie started teaching weaving to others about five years ago, she says. Her niece Chenoa, who refers to her as “Mom”, beams with admiration as she speaks about Stephanie and the work she has done. Photo by Anna McKenzie

When asked how the weaving process makes her feel, Point says it gives her a sense of tranquillity.

“It’s an honour to be able to teach our people so that the tradition gets carried on … for the people who are learning today for future generations,” says Point. 

“Like sitting by the ocean, there’s a sense of connection, a sense of calm. I feel like I am at peace with the Ancestors.”


Editor’s note: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly stated that Margaret Pointe was Stephanie’s mother. We apologize for the error.

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