Dress Among Plains Indian Women

By: William Curtis Farabee

Originally Published in 1921

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THE culture of the Plains Indians was characterized by a lack of practically everything we today consider essential in the life of any people and yet, in the minds of most of us, they were the typical Indians of America. We see them in imagination all clad in buckskin and feathers.

Dress with decorative fringe on the sleeves and hem, and beading along the top
Fig. 71. — Sioux Indian girl’s dress, Gift of Mrs. C. C. Harrison Jr.
Museum Object Number: NA3562
Image Number: 12879

The limits of this culture coincided with the wanderings of the buffalo which covered that great territory stretching from the Mississippi to the Western mountains and from the Gulf far into Canada. Around the borders of this area the culture was modified by contact but the characteristics of the central tribes extended to the limits described. Within this area there are some thirty tribes, representatives of five different linguistic stocks. Named from north to south some of the most typical tribes are: the Cree, Blackfoot, Assiniboine, Crow, Dakota, Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche. The common traits of customs are due to the fact that the buffalo entered so largely into the material and religious life of the people.

It is not the place here to enter into a detailed account of the whole culture; suffice it to state that there was no permanent home, no canoe for transportation or travel, no practice of agriculture, no weaving of cloth for clothing, no pottery for cooking purposes, no basketry and no fish, fruits, seeds or berries in their dietary. The reader is ready to exclaim, ” Then what on earth had they?” and the answer is, “All that the buffalo could offer.” His hide furnished the material for tipis, clothing and harnesses; his flesh was the whole food supply; his movements controlled the social organization and this dependence developed myth, ritual and religion.

The people were told in the beginning how to dress, paint their faces and light their pipes. As there was no attempt to act the part played by spirits or supernatural animals there are no ceremonial costumes or masks which are so often met with among other tribes. The home, or rather the temporary dwelling place, was the conical tent or tipi, made of a dozen poles covered with a dozen buffalo skins, which were tanned and made up by the women. All the paraphernalia and the type of shelter itself were adapted for ready transportation because the people were compelled to follow their food supply and it was on foot. The woman placed her packs on the litter, or travois, to which she harnessed her dog. She cooked her food by dropping hot stones into the vessels of skin containing water. She used skins in place of woven cloth for making the wearing apparel for the household.

The worth of a woman was measured by her ability in the art of dressing and tailoring skins. She made her husband’s clothing with even more care than her own and dressed him up in his finery as she would her child. She tanned the skins and embroidered them in beautiful designs with colored porcupine quills. She also gave a great deal of attention to her own dress and personal appearance.

Dress with decorative fringe along the sleeves, hem, and  yoke, with a geometric pattern made of quills along the top
Fig. 72. — Cree Indian Dress. Gift of Miss Marjorie Watmough (Mrs. Edward. F. Hoffman, Jr.)
Museum Object Number: 29-47-262
Image Number: 141779, 12953

By the time a girl is fifteen she has learned to dress skins and to make all kinds of wearing apparel from the fur robe to the rawhide moccasins. The methods used are much the same over the entire area. When robes are made the hair is not removed but other hides are put through the six stages of fleshing, scraping, braining, stripping, graining and working. To obtain the best results it is necessary to bleach the skins in the sun for a few days. The fleshing begins as soon as possible after the hide has been removed and staked out on the ground. The instrument used to scrape off the flesh and fat is a sort of gouge with serrated edge made from the leg bone of the buffalo. The hair is next removed with an adzlike tool made of elkhorn with a stone blade. The skin is now ready for the braining process in which brains, liver, grease and yucca root are boiled together and applied to the skin with a yucca brush. Then a bunch of dry grass saturated with hot water is thrown into the middle of the hide and the corners folded over, tied and the whole hung up to soak until the next day, when the stripping takes place. This consists in twisting the damp hide into a rope to remove as much moisture as possible, after which it is stretched in a frame and stripped with a stone blade set in a handle of bone by pressing the blade heavily against the skin and drawing it steadily from top to bottom. After all the moisture has been worked out the skin is left in the frame to bleach until it is ready to grain. The graining implement is cut from the spongy head of the humerus of a buffalo. With it the whole surface of the skin is rubbed over to reduce it to uniform thickness and smoothness. Then the final working renders the skin soft and pliable. Two women draw the skin back and forth around a tree or over a sinew rope tied between two trees, thus giving the skin its final softness. After all this it is washed with white chalk clay and brushed when dry.

The skin is now soft and white; if a darker color is desired it is obtained by smoking the skin over a slow fire for two or three hours. A hole is dug in the ground, a fire kindled and allowed to burn until a mass of coals have accumulated, then damp rotten wood is put on, causing a dense smoke in which the skin is held.

If a robe is to be made, the fur or hair is left on and the skin dressed by throwing it over a log, scraping it and rubbing it with a mixture of corn meal, eggs and water. When dry, the skin is worked over the rounded top of a post to soften it. When handling the large skins it is necessary for two women to work together. At best, skin dressing is a difficult and laborious job requiring skill, strength and patience.

When the skins were properly prepared the making of clothing must have been considered a pleasant occupation and one in which the women of the different tribes took great pride. While the general type of dress was much the same there were certain differences due to the presence in one community of certain fur bearing animals whose skins gave variety to the clothing. The Apsaroke were better dressed than any .other of the northwestern tribes on this account. The modes of stitching, the methods of embroidering and the kinds of decoration served to distinguish tribe from tribe.

Drawn diagram showing the pattern and coloration of the fringe
Fig. 73. — Showing details of fringe on the yoke in Fig. 72.

The one type of woman’s dress peculiar to the whole plains area was a one piece garment reaching down to midway between the knee and ankle. It might be made of the skins of the deer, elk or mountain sheep, of one skin or two, with sleeves or without, with a folded over yoke or one joined to the skin, decorated with quills, elk teeth or fringe, but when completed it was all one piece with holes for the head and arms.

Among the Sioux generally the dress was made of two deer skins sewed together along the sides to the armholes, except when a woman had a nursing child the sewing stopped at the breast. The bottom was cut zigzag with a point at each side and one in the middle of the front and back. The side edges of one or both skins, and the bottom were fringed. The yoke was joined to the skin by overlacing the edge which was fringed or notched. The skirt was decorated at intervals with rows of double pendent thongs which were sometimes attached over bits of cloth or encircled with beads. Usually there were no sleeves; the heavy fringe of the extended yoke fell down over the shoulders and upper arms, but sometimes there was a sleeve reaching to the elbow sewed or tied at intervals on the under side. The sleeveless type was worn by the Crow, Blackfoot, Dakato, Arapaho, Assiniboine and Cree, while the Comanche, Kiowa and Ute wore sleeves. Instead of the thongs, elk teeth might be used for decoration either in rows or thickly dotted from top to bottom, thus showing the wealth or standing of the family. No self respecting young man would marry unless he could furnish elk teeth for the bridal dress. The teeth were very expensive, one hundred being worth as much as a horse, yet several hundred, even as many as a thousand were sometimes sewed on one dress. The girl’s dress in Fig. 71 contains about two hundred teeth.

Drawn diagram showing the pattern and coloration of the fringe on the sleeve and shoulder
Fig. 74. — Showing details of fringe over the left shoulder.
Image Number: 12954

The Hidatsa woman of North Dakota made her dress of two mountain sheep skins sewed edge to edge with the tails remaining on the skin, one on the breast and the other on the back. When a young man was married he took his bride to his parents’ lodge, where he and his relatives presented her with a dress richly embroidered around the neck and over the shoulders with porcupine quill work, covered with elk teeth and fringed with rattles of deer hoofs, a belt, beaded moccasins, leggings and everything a woman needed in her household. Any woman who had a good garden and kept a clean lodge was entitled to wear a deerskin belt six inches wide decorated with feathers.

A number of variations from the type of dress are found here and there within the Plains area or around its borders. The Sahaptian make a true sleeve of the extension of the cape, the Cree have a detached sleeve, the Comanche and Kiowa use an open lowcut neck, the Arapaho and Cheyenne use a yoke with square cut cape extensions. The Dakota have a notched yoke, the Cree a folded over yoke and the southern tribes have a detached cape or large loose yoke. Some of the eastern Sioux and Algonkin tribes wore a skirt reaching below the knees which was nothing more than a single piece of buckskin open on one side. Over this they wore a skin cloak fastened over one shoulder or cut square with a hole for the head.

The Plains women wore leggings of deer or mountain sheep skins made to fit snugly, extending from the ankle to above the knee. They were slipped on like a stocking and tied top and bottom. Among some of the tribes the women decorate their leggings with beaded or painted designs to indicate their husbands’ war honors. The Hidatsa paint their leggings with diagonal red and black stripes for this purpose. The Assiniboine, Cree, Hidatsa and Dakota wear a shorter legging reaching from the ankle to the knee.

Drawn diagram showing the detail of knotting and attachment
Fig. 75. — Showing part of thong cut away to give greater separation.

With the exception of the Pacific coast people who went barefoot and some of the tribes along the Mexican border who wore sandals, the Indian men of the United States and Canada wore moccasins, but in many tribes the women went barefoot. There were two general types of moccasins; in one the moccasin was made of a single piece of soft skin with a seam up the instep and at the heel, in the other a rawhide sole was sewed to the soft upper. The second is the type used by the Plains Indians because of the character of the trails they had to follow, The decoration of the moccasins in paint, quill and bead work presents a wide range of symbolism and serves to distinguish the different tribes.

The materials used for moccasins were the stiff rawhide cut to fit the foot for the soles, the soft tanned skin of any of the larger mammals for the uppers, sinew for sewing and a thong around the top for fastening to the foot. The sole was sewed to the upper turned wrong side out and when completed it was turned, thus protecting the stitches from direct wear. Ordinarily the moccasin was only ankle high but some tribes, like the Crow, sew an extension top to the upper. Some of the northern Sioux wear in winter an outer moccasin made of buffalo skin with the hair inside.

In cold weather the women wore over the dress an untrimmed buffalo robe well tanned with the hair on and ornamented from head to tail with painted bands and strips of quill work. At intervals along the band there were circles of embroidery. The finest robes were made from the hides of heifers killed at the beginning of winter. Hides from the older animals were too hard and stiff.
Women seldom wore head covering of any kind but they dressed their hair with great care. They brushed it daily with a porcupine tail brush and anointed it with perfume of pennyroyal, sweet grass, fir needles, skunk oil or musk of beaver. The hair was parted in the middle from the forehead to the neck and allowed to hang loosely over each shoulder, tied at the end with a thong; or it was worn in two long braids hanging in front of the shoulders and tied with a thong and ornament. The Cree in earlier times wore a knot behind each ear. Old women often allowed the hair to hang loose or confined with the head band. The part was painted yellow and called the pathway of the sun. The women sometimes tattooed small circles on their foreheads and perpendicular lines on the lower lip and chin. Their ears were usually perforated and adorned with pendants of buffalo bone or very long strings of shells. Massive breast ornaments made of pierced cylinders of buffalo bone were hung from the neck. The nature of the life on the Plains gave the women much leisure and they delighted in making fine garments and embroidering them with quillwork. Not content with adorning themselves they bedecked their horses in gorgeous trappings. Women’s saddles were made with high horns and ornamented with beads and quills while from each one was suspended a large embroidered pendant. The stirrups were covered with beaded skins. Behind the saddle hung a pair of decorated saddle bags with fringes nearly sweeping the ground. There was also an elaborate crupper and an embroidered breast piece. The bridle was covered with beadwork and a decorated piece attached to the foretop hung half way down to the nose. No women in the world ever made a better appearance on horseback than did these beautifully dressed women of the Plains.

Drawn diagram showing the method of attachment of quill to the dress
Fig. 76. — Showing method of fastening ends of quill.

Of all the women’s dresses those of the Plains Cree are among the most beautiful (Fig. 72). The whole dress with its turned over yoke is made of one single piece of finely dressed elk skin. The dress is 4 ft. 4 in. long, 2 ft. 4 in. wide at the bottom and 1 ft. 8 in. at the waist. On the left side the edges of the skin are brought together and sewed through, leaving a long fringe to each edge. j On the right, or folded side, the skin is cut from the waist to the top and sewed up 8 in. to the armhole. The two top pieces are folded over 1 ft. 3 in. front and back to form a yoke. The dress was fastened over the shoulders with thongs and at the waist with a belt.

A fringe 4 in. wide runs around the bottom of the skirt and the thongs of the fringe are wrapped for 1¼ in. with porcupine quills. A fringe 812 in. wide sewed on the yoke 3 in. above the edge runs around from the left armhole in front under the right armhole to the left at the back. The separate thongs of the fringe are wrapped from the top for 3½ in. with white, yellow, red and brown porcupine quills forming the design shown in Fig. 73. The fringe on the left shoulder hangs down over the arm 12 in., or to the bottom of the yoke, in order to cover up the break in the yoke fringe under the arm. The thongs are wrapped with white, blue, yellow, red and brown quills for 2 in. and held in place by an interlacing of sinew and fiber; below this they were wrapped at intervals with single quills for 412 in. as seen in Fig. 74. The double ended fringe is made by sewing a narrow skin, also fringed, beneath the outside heading, wrapping the two thongs as one in continuous, then intermittent quilling, finally allowing the two ends to swing free. The fringe over the left shoulder was made in similar fashion but only 8 in. long, thus revealing the continuous fringe of the yoke. This sleeve is interlaced with sinew only and at the heading also. A part of the thong is cut away here, as under the arms also, causing greater separation (Fig. 75). The skirt was further ornamented with a line of looped thongs a foot long set two inches apart and reaching to the bottom of the fringe. One thong passed between three blue beads through the skin with a knot on the inside, the other was attached to this one with the first wrapping of quills, below, both were wrapped for three inches. A line of red paint passes between alternating pairs of thongs and below this line as well as on the yoke the skin is covered with blotches of dull red paint, leaving the rest of the dress in the natural color of the tanned skin.
This dress (Fig. 72) was presented to the Museum in 1912 by Miss Marjorie Watmough (Mrs. Edward F. Hoffman, Jr.) and the one illustrated in Fig. 71 was presented in 1910 by Mrs. C. C. Harrison, Jr. The methods used by the Indians in making their embroidery were worked out by Dr. Gordon and the drawings were prepared by Miss Louise Baker.

For sewing, the women of the Plains used sinew instead of fiber thread. Long broad bands of sinew from the neck or leg of one of the large mammals were dried and stored for future use. When needed a thread was pulled out by the teeth, softened in the mouth, smoothed out, twisted and rolled between the palms. No needles were used but holes were made with a bone awl. For sewing on borders the running stitch was used and for most other purposes the over and over stitch, but besides these ordinary stitches there were numerous ornamental stitches and other varieties used for mending purposes.

Drawn diagram showing the method of attachment and detail of sleeve fringe
Fig. 77. — Showing details of sleeve fringe and method of attachment.

The quill worker’s art is unique in America and therefore demands a word of explanation and description. It is obsolete today because of the early introduction of very small glass beads in a variety of colors which could be strung and sewed on the skin clothing to produce very much the same effect as that of the vastly more difficult quillwork. And besides the Indian has been compelled to adopt the white man’s readymade clothing because of the disappearance of the animals whose skins formerly furnished the materials for dress and decoration. Most of all, the changed condition of his life in captivity on government reservations has robbed the Indian of his ambition; he no longer cares.

The women’s work began after the men had captured the porcupines and brought them in. In some tribes the men also collected the materials and prepared the dyes. The sorting and coloring of the quills, the dressing of the skins, the drawing of designs and the embroidering were exclusively the work of women. The quills were carefully sorted according to size and length and stored in small cases made of the bladders of elk or buffalo. The dyes were compounded of roots, bark, buds or plants and a number of uniform colors secured; mostly green, blue, black, yellow and red. The natural white quill was used for borders and backgrounds in designs. Pure colors were preferred and no attempt made to produce a variety of shades.
Quills were never used in their natural round state nor were they split, as is the method used with bird quills, but they were flattened as needed by running the thumb nail along from end to end while they were held between the teeth. At best the quills were stiff and difficult to manipulate, requiring skill, technique and abundant patience. They were so short that only two or three stitches or wrappings on a thong could be made and it was necessary to secure and conceal both ends of each quill independently of the others and in such a perfect way that the stitching or binding would appear as one continuous band even though various colors were used in the design. One method of fastening the ends is seen in Fig. 76. The outer end of the quill is used first, leaving the narrow stiff end next the body for the final tuck. The wrapping of the thongs is done while the skin is wet.

In embroidering on skin, a very sharp bone awl is used to make the holes. The point of the awl is pushed through from the back and the quill pulled tight, leaving a bit of the end to be bent and pressed into the skin. The design is made of lines composed of a series of upright stitches lying tight together. The width of the lines forming the designs determines the length of the stitch and these vary in width from one sixteenth to one quarter of an inch.

Many designs belonged exclusively to women and were invented by them. These designs appeared to the women in dreams and were supposed to be sent by the spider who was the original instructor of women in the art of embroidery. Many of the designs worked on children’s cradles and garments were prayers for health, long life and protection.
No other art found in America made such a strong appeal to the Indians themselves as that of the porcupine quill embroidery. The Cheyenne, Arapaho and Sioux were the most noted quill workers but other tribes far outside of the habitat of the porcupine obtained quills by barter and used them in their own peculiar form of decoration. The Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and Wichita of the southern Plains area were unacquainted with the art of quillwork. The work has so deteriorated in the regions where it is still found that it would be impossible today to find a woman who could duplicate the beautiful work on our Cree dress.

Among Paul Kane’s paintings in the Toronto Museum is one of Cun-ne-wa-bum, “One that looks at the Stars,” a half breed Cree girl whom he met at a Christmas dance at Edmonton, Canada, in 1847. The painting is reproduced in his book An Artist Among the Indians, where the author says, “I was so much struck by her beauty, that I prevailed upon her to promise to sit for her likeness, which she afterwards did with great patience, holding her fan, which was made of the tip end of swan’s wing with an ornamental handle of porcupine’s quills, in a most coquettish manner.” The dress she was wearing very closely resembles the one in Fig. 72, except that the quillwork is even more elaborate. Evidently the elegantly embroidered dress and the swan’s wing fan enhanced the beauty of Kane’s coquettish half breed maiden.

W. C. F.

Cite This Article

Farabee, William Curtis. "Dress Among Plains Indian Women." The Museum Journal XII, no. 4 (December, 1921): 253-292. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/949/

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