A 19th-century canine mystery solved

Researchers have confirmed dog hair was indeed used in Coast Salish weaving

Oral tradition suggests that blankets, robes and other textiles made by the Coast Salish—a First Nations people from southern B.C. and northern Washington state—were made with dog hair, although some researchers doubted these claims. Historical accounts told of a small “Pomeranian-type dog” bred for its woolly coat until the mid-19th century, says Susan Heald, senior textile conservator at the Smithsonian Institution; the breed disappeared after contact with Europeans. Maybe because it was lost, “some people had their doubts about whether they really used dog hair,” she says, or whether that was simply a legend. Now modern science has put the debate to rest. Using cutting-edge equipment, researchers have confirmed dog hair was indeed used in Coast Salish weaving.

A team led by Caroline Solazzo of the University of York studied 25 different samples, mostly dating from the early to mid-19th century, extracting proteins to pinpoint distinct sequences of amino acids. “Each species has a unique sequence,” says Solazzo, reached over the phone from Paris. They found dog hair in all the textiles produced before 1862, often blended with goat hair, suggesting it might have been used as a bulking material. Sheep wool was incorporated after contact with European traders increased and commercial products became more available.

Coast Salish weaving is an “active tradition,” which is enjoying a resurgence today, says Heald, who collaborated with Solazzo on the study. While weavers don’t use dog hair in their textiles anymore, this research is important, she says, because it confirms a part of the community’s history. As for the dog itself, no photographic records exist, she adds, but it was depicted in paintings and described in explorers’ accounts. According to Heald, “it looked like a small, woolly white dog with its tail curling up.”

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