Tuesday, February 1, 2011

James Blake, The Ties that Bind the Hands of a Craftsman

Capturing the true spirit of the material culture of the 18th century is a passionate way of life for James Blake, whose quill work and finger weaving bind him to the rich heritage of the Woodland Indian of Colonial America.  Quill work is an ancient form of decoration practiced by numerous American Indian tribes, whereby the quill is dyed, flattened and affixed to a piece of animal skin or bark medium.  It is generally woven or wrapped, in intricate detail, around threads, which are anchored into the medium.  Finger weaving is a technique of weaving sashes, garters, straps and bags without the use of a loom.  Yarn is woven over and under the strands next to them, obliquely to the left or right, creating a slanted weave. It may be single or multicolored depending largely on the type of weave.  Some weaves include beads.

Each art form is equally demanding in its creation and requires patience, understanding, diligence – and research.  He patiently produces and plies his craft at numerous trade fairs and conferences.  Most notable of the two is his quill work. It is as eye catching as his eastern woodland-warrior adornment. I had a chance to meet with James at the Raid on Martin's Station this May 2010.  While seated at the edge of his trade blanket we talked about his love for the craft.  I viewed many items among which was his Woodland Indian porcupine quill work.  To sum it up, it was neat and tight! James explains how he “attempted quill working,” in his own words, “I first attempted quill work in 2002, and that's what it was, an attempt.  I was self-taught.  I learned from books like William C. Orchard's, The Technique of Porcupine Quill Decoration Among the North American Indians.  I think Orchard's work is the most thorough, in that he uses ethnographic examples to show the different techniques of quill work”

This contemporary work is a copy of a rare example attributed to the Mohawk tribe which dates to the 18th century.  Formerly in the collection of Alexander Farquhson, a British soldier in the 42nd Highland regiment (the Black Watch) who served from 1758-1762 in North America and Canada.  This piece is rare in its use of a single quilled slat.

These various finger woven straps and leg ties are are woven in the oblique, yet incorporate different methods of adding beaded designs, an exercise in 18th century technique. 

He still has his first piece, it was crude but it was a start.  He apparently made up his mind that this was a craft that he was going to get right; and with that first work, he put his dogged persistence to good effect.  In the years since that first attempt, he has delved into extensive research on the numerous Native American designs and the mediums for their application.  In addition to that, there is the tedious process of experimenting with and successfully applying natural dyes, which has given him a core of experience that shows in his work.  When recreating the historical look for some collectors, he has found himself vexed by the “lost” art of capturing a particular color for the intended piece.  It is understood at that point between the collector and James that the piece accurately reflects the look of a period original.  He uses only natural dyes for all his materials, since using modern substitutes is unacceptable, if it can be avoided.  In the back of his mind there is always the nagging question of how to achieve the same dye effect with natural dye processes.  He looked at me from across the blanket, his head cocked to one side and tilted forward, his palms tilted up as he made the point, “If it was done 250 years ago, then a person should be able to reproduce the same thing now-a-days.”

A finger woven and quilled pouch using natural dyes, woven by James Blake and quilled by Shawn Webster in the 18th century tradition. This pouch was donated to the 2010 Contemporary Longrifle Association Fund Raising Auction, “Certifiably Native”.

A quilled Delaware sheath with quill plaited knife which was a joint project between James Blake and Shawn Webster. It was copied from an original dating to the mid to late 18th century that now resides in the National Museum of the American Indian.
In his drive to use natural components, James returns to the woods and earth for both work and play.  Having grown up in West Virginia, he feels the most connected to that area, which is where he collects many of his materials.   His enjoyment of collecting and gathering came from the times his father took him out to gather ginseng, yellowroot, natural medicines, and natural dyes; he regards those times as blessings.  A member of the NMLRA and the CLA, he also loves trout fishing, and deer hunting with a muzzleloader.   In the garden, he and his wife, Marya, (an artist in her own right) grow heirloom corn, beans, squash, and herbs (along with modern ones) which is yet another facet of utilizing his ties to the past.

The same dedication to quill work has also gone into his efforts to produce finger weaving.  He started in 2005 trying to reproduce it from a book, but after a great deal of consternation, he finally consulted his good friend Duane Schreckengost who helped by patiently watching James, pointing out and then correcting mistakes.  The corrections were like finding bits of silver among the dross.  When something does not come easily, one tends to pay closer attention just to grasp the basics.  James is no different; his skill has been earned the hard way.  Though he feels he is a common man, others see his uncommon dedication, or rather, rare ability to focus on his task, which is hard to find in today's world, where mediocrity of effort is too-often applauded.  What he feels he lacked in skill, he more than made up for in his dedication to extensive research and ruminating on articles like the one written by Tim Connin in the book Buckskinning VI (Scurlock Publishing).  James explained that with oblique weaving IF JUST ONE STRAND is out of place, it throws the whole piece off.  It is very repetitious but it does depend on constant attention to details of an exact pattern. I was handed a woven and beaded set of garters.  I felt the tight weave and could see the evenness of the work. They were exact copies of originals.

This smoking pipe and stem is a joint family effort. The catlinite bowl was carved by Christian Hays, father in law of James. The stem quillwork by James is a design copied from a original reported to have belonged to Joseph Brant, which is now housed in the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington DC).

A twined tumpline is cut down to be used as a powderhorn strap, shortened as seen on several original examples.  It was used on the cover art of the book,  In their Own words (Native American Voices from the American Revolution) by Alan Fitzpatrick.

These beaded pieces employ different techniques used by American Indians. Loom beadwork was employed to make the glass wampum strap, The beaded garters are copied from originals attributed to the Sauk and Fox. They were made by a technique called open face weaving (bead twining). 

His craft has been noticed by historical associations and film producers.  Also in line with that is his presence as an actor or extra in a number of historical film productions.  As a living historian, of the Indian genre, he has been involved in many documentaries for PBS, the History Channel, and so on; both he and his gear are in demand. The same goes for seeing his pieces in paintings, with the likes of works by historical artists: Robert Griffing, John Buxton, Andrew Knez, Jr., Bryant and Pam White, and Jack Paluh.  However, he humorously mentioned that he probably gets a bigger kick out of seeing his work on TV than seeing himself.  

A copy of an original gustawe (head dress) in the Thaw Collection. It was constructed using period techniques and materials, including hide glue and natural pigments for the painted background.

This contemporary knife sheath by Blake is based on an original rare example of a quilled belt sheath attributed to a Great Lakes tribe, possibly Huron.  The quills and deer hair were completely natural dyed under the watchful eye of master quilling artist, Lally House. The metal cones are hand rolled tin. 

This loom quilled neck knife sheath with quill plaited knife handle is based from a original with intentional alterations to make it a unique piece.

Historical artists Robert Griffing, (l) and John Buxton (r) with James and wife Marya.

Because of the authenticity, James’s work has been used as props by several well-known historical artists. A head dress made by James is shown in a painting titled Advocate for Peace by Robert Griffing.  It utilizes designs based on the culture of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker and is attributed to have been collected by 18th century traveler and author, Nicholas Cresswell.

Advocate For Peace by Robert Griffing

Though not a boaster, he can point to numerous display pieces he has on exhibit; because, in addition to being photographed by numerous historical artists, Blake’s detailed accuracy has caused him and his work to be highly sought after by a number of museums.  A short list is:  Harrisburg State Museum, Harrisburg PA;  Fort Pitt, Bushy Run Battlefield, Janette PA;  Slippery Rock Museum, Slippery Rock PA;  Pennsylvania Historical Society, Bethlehem PA;  Michigan  Historical Society, Lansing, MI;    Old Stone House, Clark County Historical Society, Berryville, Virginia;  Maine State Museum;  and  Grand Portage Museum, Grand Portage, Minnesota. 

His versatility seems to beg the question, which skill is your stronger suit?  The answer I received shows that he is as humble as his adornment is fierce.  He enjoys doing these things so much that he does not give the concept much attention until someone compliments him on his work.  At that point, he feels shocked that someone appreciates his work as much as he likes to make it.  The fact is, good work shows in the product of a person who loves what they are doing.  His versatility extends to other things as well.  He related to me that, “Sometimes the mood hits me to work in completely different mediums like carving a stone pipe.”

James talents extend beyond finger weaving and quilling.  This ladle was carved from an oak burl, then was finished with rendered bear grease and burnished to give a warm gloss.

A smoked and painted caribou skin pouch- Entirely sewn with caribou sinew and hide using natural earth pigments and fish roe (eggs) as the medium. It is a stylistic version based on an original pouch Naskapi pouch.

This smoked and painted hide robe, made using natural earth pigments and fish roe was copied from an original collected during the 18th century in the upper Great Lakes region. It now resides in the Musée de l’Homme (Paris, France).

I had a chance to examine a documented pipe.  I ran my fingers over the pewter lined steatite pipe; made in the “calumet” style.  He also handed me some natural cordage of Dogbane (Indian Hemp) or the inner bark of Basswood (wiigoob).  Of course when working with natural materials sometimes the seasons dictate when the materials are available and hence also dictate the satisfaction of that particular mood.  Anyone who is closely connected to the land understands, as does James, that either the craftsman has the items stored on hand or simply has to wait for the proper season.

As we continued to talk at the edge of the blanket, I had an opportunity to examine the Stroud cloth that he produces and sells.  James imports the base wool from England, which is an undyed (white) broadcloth weight wool. He then has developed a method to resist dye the material (called “Saved List”) to match the look as was done in 18th century, which produces a white stripe where the dye has been blocked, usually at the edge of the selvage.  His research has led him to museums, which exhibit surviving examples of cloth that has been recovered from 18th century burial sites and other sources.  He also examines period paintings showing Native Americans.  Most Saved List Stroud sold on the market today exhibits the cloth edged with a white band. This is correct for late 18th century and nineteenth century and though he produces this style, James, (as far is as known) is the only one to produce a particular 18th century styled Stroud, which has the white bands stepped back from the edge of the cloth. This gives those who do 18th century Woodland Indian re-creation an authentically researched Stroud cloth for their portrayals.  James uses the same techniques the old dyers in Gloucestershire used, a binding method that saves the wool from the dye very similar to the tie-dye method we use today.  

Three Stroud breechclouts dyed in the most common colors with blue being the most abundant, then red and then green. These breechclouts are made with white list stepped back from the selvage edge - very typical of 18th century stroud cloth. James also dyes the Stroud with the white at the edge of the selvage which serves the 18th and 19th century historical period.

It has taken him nearly four years of research, trial and error and more work but he has perfected it.  Producing Saved List wool Stroud has become a family effort in which he is joined by wife Marya and his father-in-law Chris Hays, both of whom have also served as models for historical artists (as mentioned before) including H. David Wright.  Later that same day as I thought of the Stroud, I asked a number of the Indian interpreters about its performance.  I was told the wool weight is good and the dye set is high quality.

Red Stroud cloth leggings - copied from a original pair from the collection of Charles Mesiter dated to the late 18th century and are presently in the National Museum of Scotland. These leggings are part of a full set of clothing, which includes a match coat, leggings and breechclout. A copy of the match coat is shown in the first photo of this article.

This woven and beaded strap is natural dyed using madder root . It is a contemporary piece taking design elements from originals and joining them to produce this unique design. This piece was commissioned for a collector to be attached to a original powder horn dating to the Rev War.

When put to the question of how some of his items work “in the brush” he explained that he has packed-in and “trekked” in many parts of the country while usually portraying a woodland Indian from one of several tribal groups.  He further pointed out, “In doing this, I've gotten a small sense of what works and what doesn't, when it comes to being in the bush for extended periods of time.  I would like to add though; many items and original pieces were not made for the bush. Some of these were purely for decoration, others contained spiritual symbolism and meaning...AND to express attitudes of war and peace.”

James uses a collection of accoutrements and decorations from a number of makers, not just his own.  I could sense a bit of humor spilling over as he mentioned that using only his own stuff would be a bit conceited.  He, like many fellow interpreter/reenactor types, feels that it is best to support the “variants of others' work,” as it makes for a more believable portrayal.  He does use his own finger woven powder horn strap, quilled neck knife case, and Stroud.  When questioned by a customer, be it a die-hard trekker or a museum collector, James will generally have more than enough experience to give pointers in the use and maintenance of his products.

The use and presence of an item is the crux of the material culture of any society.  Even back when he was a neophyte, James realized the continuity between time, place and material culture.  He picked up on the relevance of the proper clothing and equipment worn by participants at a number of different Rev' War or F&I events.  Many would concur with his thought that: “If the dates of historical events are so important so must be the material culture, in order to give accurate and well rounded interpretations of the periods.”  

The Blake family – Marya and James with son Jude and daughter Laila at the raid at Martins Station in May, 2010.  The Blakes attend a number of living history events where they recreate the personnas of an 18th century Woodland Native American family.

When a project comes to his mind, the product flows from his mind to his hands.  It is dyed, twisted, tied, wrapped and bound into a finished product.  He is bound to his craft like an arrowhead to a shaft.  His connections to the past are the ties that bind the hands of a craftsman.

James (foreground) and Chris Hayes model for historical artist Robert Griffing

"At the River's Edge"

“If the times and dates of historical events are so important, then so must be the material culture in order to give accurate and well rounded interpretations of the periods.”  
James Blake on the importance of identifying the correct look with the proper time/place.
When, artists, movie producers, and photographers search out people to portray historical entities, they want “the look.”  For an artist to accurately produce a historical based work, the need for his models to present authentic clothing, firearms, and accouterments is vital.  Also, it helps that his model ”knows” the character he portrays.  Here, James Blake with his research and experience excels.

The relevance of the proper clothing and equipment worn by participants at an historical event puts the viewer in mind of a date and a geographic location in history.   Through the years James Blake has experienced numerous living history presentations; Colonial, Rev War, and F&I events.  His talent is to “weave” clothing, paint, personal adornment and accouterments of the eastern Woodland Indian onto his person and into the venue.

Because of this accomplishment he is sought as a model by artists who wish to capture the distinct look of the 18th century Woodland Indian.  But more than just an accurate visual representation of his persona, he knows his subject through years of research into the lives of North America’s Woodland Indian culture and is able to project that experience into his portrayal.

His goal is to challenge himself to break old stereotypes born of Hollywood by presenting accurate portrayals of eastern Indians.   The very thing James Blake thrives on, which is “to document and make the real material culture”, is also the very thing that the artists seek. 

His homework has been done; and done well which has caused him to be sought out as a model by such well known historical artists as Robert Griffing, John Buxton, Andrew Knez Jr., Bryant and Pamela White, and Jack Paluh.  Though each artist has a different style, they use James as the quintessential eastern Woodland Indian model.   He has showed up in numerous limited edition reproductions by these artists and his portrait-likeness can be found on the cover of Alan Fitzpatrick’s book, Wilderness War On The Ohio, (Fort Henry Publications).

His presence as an extra has enriched films and documentaries such as The Captives, (a JTB Production); George Washington's First War, (Paladin Films); Opening the Door West, (Sherburne Films); and test filming for The War That Made America, (PBS). 

As a model or an actor, rather than simply being present and looking good, his presence brings realism to the event.  His clothing, accoutrements (most of which he makes), personal adornment and even body paint reflect experience, replete with dirt, sweat and dingy color, that is to say, wear and tear from being used in the wilds of North America.  It has a real “everyday” appearance. Being a model is a fitting compliment to his presence and his products; recognition for a lot of hard work.  The real compliment is seeing others mirror him...or shall we say, model him. JH

James and Marya operate White Savage Trading Co.  They can be reached by phone at 1-717-334-9444
or by email at: grenhand@yahoo.com

Copy by John W. Haye. Photography by Ric Lambert, James Blake, H. David Wright and Jan Riser. (Reprint from Muzzle Blast)


  1. I want to personally thank David Wright, and Jon hays, Ric lambert, and Jan and Art riser thank you guys for all the help putting this together. I feel blessed and lucky I'll continue to work hard and produce unique art. Thank you guys.
    James Blake

  2. I also forget to mention thanking Robert Griffing for the wonderful cover.

  3. I understand your business ethics leave something to be desired. Unfortunately for you the word on you is getting out in the reenacting community. After cashing a $150 advance over 2 years ago, and delivering NO product, its only fair your business suffer. Just what sort of a Christian do you profess to be ? I suggest Sir, that you walk the walk.

  4. Does anyone know the current personal and financial situation of Jame Blake? In view of the comments by Erik Michaelsen and some other information I heard, I am concerned with doing business with him. Would appreciate any comments.

  5. I have tried to get prices from Mr. Blake at least three times but so far he has failed to answer. I'm sure his business is good but is it so good that he can ignore any possible orders?

    Robert Ellis


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