Look at mink, The mandan girl painted by Caitlin
Look at mink, The mandan girl painted by Caitlin
Fur trade dresses were decorated with quillwork or
pound beads which are equivalent in size to the #8
beads of today. Lumpy money cowrie shells were
fertility symbols and were widely used. Elk teeth, a
symbol of long life, were very popular especially among
the Crow. Brass thimbles are also often seen used as
dangles, as are dew claws from deer. Dentalium shells
were sewn in rows on dress bodices. The larger necklace
size trade beads were strung on thongs that hung from
dresses. Hawk bells were another popular dangle.
Some thoughts on fur trade beadwork:
Actually, there is still some controversy over seed beads.
What we have to go by is, of course Bodmer who
showed the pound beads, sometimes with so much
detail that you can even count the beads in the rows.
The Chandler Port collection shows wonderful examples
of the transition from pound to seed beads and how the
designs gradually became more complicated, too. The first
use of beads was to add color to an article and not
thought much of as making designs with the beadwork.
Yes, there were seed beads brought out and Fort Hall
here in Idaho has inventories of seed beads. What we
have to look at is the quantities of each, and pound beads
were in much larger quantities than seed. I have thought
about it and wondered why we don't see them in existing
articles from the Rocky Mountain fur trade. My thoughts
are that some use of seed beads in very small quantities
could be appropriate, or that perhaps seed beads were
most popular with the Eastern Indians that were out here
in the trapping brigades in fairly large numbers [Iroquois,
Delaware], and some of the necklaces that Catlin shows
on Indians look like seed beads. Look at Mink, the Mandan
girl he painted. Three of her necklaces look like seed
beads, and also the trim on the edges of her quilled
bracelet. There is also a beaded necklace worn by Six
[another Catlin painting], a Plains Ojibwa, in a style still
made by the Shoshone here. These paintings show use
of seed beads in very small quantities, and not as the
main design on an article of clothing. Its not that seed
beads weren't here, they just weren't fashionable among
the Indians as decoration for clothing.
Remember I am just talking about the Rocky Mountain fur
trade here. I have heard that Southern tribes used seed
beads a bit earlier, and have not done much research
there. The one thing I remember is the Commanche strike
a light bag found that caused some excitement because it
proved that seed beads had been used, it was collected
by Berlandier, circa 1840. That is still at the very end of the
fur trade period, though and it was still just on a very small
article and not on a large clothing piece.
So, from the paintings and existing artifacts it appears
that pre 1850 bead ornamentation of the Western Plains
Indian clothing is limited to the use of pony beads.
These beads became available on the plains in the early
1800's. By the 1830's they were popular as trims or
borders for quillwork, and also as the main decoration on
some pieces. Colors used were very limited- white, blue
and black being by far the most common, with pumpkin,
greasy yellow, reds and dark blue being quite scarce.
It is interesting that to make red, a gold compound was
used as pigment. The early bead colors were softer and
richer than what we have today. Many early beadwork
pieces show the use of several sizes of pony beads on
one design. I have a few strands of antique pony beads
and they are not as uniform in size as today's
reproductions. Seed beads were in use in the East at
this time, but they did not get West of the Missouri River
much before the middle 1840's.
Early beadwork designs were also very simple- boxes,
triangles, and rectangles. The more complicated designs
started appearing in the seed bead era around 1850.
These early beads were either opaque or what we
call "greasy" such as greasy yellow. Transparent beads
came about 1870 and faceted beads for beadwork about
Pony beadwork designs 1800 to 1840
Very simple designs- boxes, triangles, and rectangles
Early strike a light Pony Beadwork
Note the simplicity of the design again.
Sioux seed bead design from 1870.
This type of design is not proper
for the fur trade time period.
Lazy stitch was one of the earliest methods used and the
most widespread. A given number of beads up to 12, are
strung on the thread or sinew and sewed down in rows,
the thread passing only through the top layer of buckskin
so no stitches show on the back.
Sioux lazy stitch does not lay flat and each row is sewn on
independently of the other rows.
Cheyenne lazy stitch lays flat and each row is hooked
under threads of the rows above. Wax the thread often to
make it grab into the leather and hold the beads tight.
Real sinew was the most often used, but linen and cotton thread was available from traders.
Overlay stitch uses two threads. One thread is strung
with beads and the other thread is used to sew down
every second bead to the leather or cloth.
Applique or return stitch is a method of sewing down
beads and retracing through the last half before adding
more beads. This is good for rosettes.
Loom beadwork was not done among the Western tribes
during the fur trade era and definitely should not be used!
LazyStitch Overlaid Applique
A source for reproduction beads is Crazy Crow. Baby
Powder Blue #042 is the color blue to buy from them.
White, or French porcelain white are both acceptable,
and of course, black, all in number 8. They are listed
as "old time colors."
For learning quillwork,we recommend Jean
"A Quillwork Companion."
This is truly the Quillworker's Bible!
Art of the American Frontier by David Penny
The Plains Indians by Colin Taylor
Carl Bodmers America
The George Catlin Book of American Indians by
Below are some examples of fur trade style
dresses so you can see the type of decorations
Nez Pierce dress Decorated with pound beads and
Dentalium shells, collected by Reverend Spaulding.
The bottom of Nez Pierce dresses do not have wool
Please note the Spaulding dress is using size 8 black
beads, but the white beads are definately size 10.
Jill and I have personally seen and examined this
Dress and are positive about the size 10 beads.
Quilled rosettes with basket weave down the sleeves.
Close ups of the Same Dress
Sioux dress in the Smithsonian, decorated with blue
pound beads. This one is done differently, it has a
separate beaded piece attached at the neck and
Sioux style circa 1850, blue, white, and red pound
beads.This shows the transition toward the fuller beaded
popular circa 1870.
Both of these dresses were collected by Father De Schmitd,
circa 1850, Blackfoot
Upper Missouri child's dress
Katy's replica of an 1830 dress in one of the German
museums. this dress has some interesting variations.
See how low the colored piece comes down on the
dress top. This shows that is made of three hides but
sewn in the style of the two hide dresses, as we
mentioned in "The Two Hide Dress", and was done
when large enough hides were not available. The
plugs are braintan inserts instead of the usual wool
and the sides are just laced together with thongs
spaced several inches apart.
The lacing stops above the knee, and how practical for
mounting a horse!
The rosettes are quilled, with blue pound bead edging.
Black, white and blue beads on a crow top.
Star dress done in quillwork.
The bottom of this dress is done with bead work. Note
the brass thimbles as dangles.
Top of dress note the Elk teeth dangles.
Bottom of dress note the wool inserts.
Two hide dress from the Cody Museum.This may be
the most important dress we can show! Work dresses
were not decorated, and they were the ones worn
everyday by Indian women. The other dresses, with all
their fancy decorations, were for special occasions.
Any well off woman would have owned their everyday
dress and one ceremonial or special occasion dress.
Anyone striving for realism, and especially the WFT
women who are always out on thr trail, should make the everyday dress their first priority.
We hope this has given you some ideas and helped in decorating your two hide dress.
Jill, Sandy and Chris.