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Pet Product News Editorial Blog:

December 22, 2011

A Shaggy Dog Story that Proves to be True

By David Alderton

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Researchers from the University of York in England recently produced the first clear evidence that textiles made by the indigenous population of the Pacific coast of North America contained dog hair.

Colonial blanket
Colonial blanket 144864. National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Smithsonian Institution; Photo by Ernest Amoros.

During recent years, scientists have hotly debated whether textiles—such as blankets and robes—made by the skillful Coast Salish weavers (pre-European contact) were made of dog hair, as oral histories claimed. There was said to be a special breed of dog that was bred locally until the 1850s for its woolly hair or fleece, which was then used in the textile industry.

Using highly sensitive equipment at the University’s Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry, York researchers from Departments of Biology, Archaeology and Chemistry analyzed the protein composition of 11 textiles in different locations, representing 25 samples in total.

The samples were taken from artifacts in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian collections and included blankets, a sash and a robe of fur. Some of the textiles were collected during the American expeditions to the West Coast, including the Lewis and Clark (1803-1806) and Wilkes (1838-1842) expeditions. The samples dated mainly from early- to mid-19th century.

Researchers found evidence of dog hair in the robe of fur and six of the woven textiles, primarily in a blend with goat hair.  However, the results show there is no real proof of a preference for dog hair in high-status fabrics and the researchers did not find any textiles made entirely of dog hair.

Instead, researchers conclude that dog hair appears to have been used to supplement mountain goat hair, possibly as a bulking material. Surprisingly too, the results also indicate that commercial sheep wool was also incorporated into textiles in the 19th century. Previous investigations had suggested that sheep wool was not used in Salish weaving.

Classical blanket
Classical blanket catalogue no. E2124, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert.
The research was led by Dr. Caroline Solazzo, a Marie Curie Research Fellow from York’s Department of Archaeology, and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum Conservation Institute at the Smithsonian Institution. She said:

“Dogs have a long history of interaction with humans, from companionship to guarding and hunting; but raising dogs for fiber production was a unique cultural adaptation in the Pacific Northwest,” Dr.Solazzo said. “It is perhaps the unusual strategy that has led some to doubt the use of dog wool.

The existence of a woolly dog is supported by historic accounts of 18th century European explorers. The dogs were reported to be corralled on small islands off the coast to prevent inter-breeding with short-haired village dogs. The dog disappeared less than 100 years after the first contact with Europeans.

*The paper "Proteomics and Coast Salish blankets: a tale of shaggy dogs?" is published in the journal Antiquity.


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