The two hide dress, or deer tail dress was the prevalent style for northern Plains and Plateau tribes during the rendezvous period of the fur trade. How to construct these dresses is one of the most frequently asked questions so we are offering the details here in order that you may avoid some of the mistakes that
we have made while learning!
The name "Two Hide" dress is somewhat misleading, because many dresses were pieced in order to get the size needed. They were not always made with deer hides either, actually big horn sheep were preferred by many tribes. These dresses utilized the natural shape of the animal with minimal tailoring. This showed respect for the animal and it's grace and beauty was thereby imparted to the wearer.
The hides are used flesh side out, with the tail end folded down so the center is about 6" wide, tapering to only about 1" on the sleeve ends. A note of interest is that two different shoshone elders both told me that their tribe would never have done it this way because it shows no respect for the animal to wear its skin wrong side out. We have not had an opportunity to examine any Shoshone museum dresses, but if any of you have, let us know.
We use large size leather needles as pins to hold the fold down in place while sewing. The fold is laced on with a fine size leather thong. Be sure to make close, fine lacing here, about 1/4" apart. Then on the back side cut next to the lacing and unfold that back piece. This gives more material at the top for the shoulders. When two hides were not large enough, a third hide was used for the yoke and cut to simulate the shape of the true two hide dress fold. Cut the center neck about 10 to 12" and trim the shoulder lines evenly.
Do this for both front and back hides, then lace the sides together with another leather thong, using whip stitch. I use a leather thong and running stitch at the shoulders since I have found that whip stitch here makes the seam more stiff and bulky. All seams are done with a welt sewed in, a narrow one at the shoulders and a 2 to 3" one on the sides which is cut into the side fringe. The last 6 to 7" of the sides are sewn with real sinew for added strength. The bottom 5" is not sewn at all. Though most dresses were sewn with the welt, I have seen a few that were laced with thong a few inches in from the side and then the sides fringed.
Plateau dresses had filler pieces of hide sewn into the bottom to make a straighter edge there. Other tribes have wool plugs inserted to fill the open areas left by the natural shape of the hide. The open areas were accentuated by trimming them even more. These wool pieces were sewn onto a longer leather backing that was fringed at the bottom. Sew the top edge of the plug to the dress with real sinew, or tie it in with leather thongs so that it hangs gracefully below the arches.
Long thongs are often added to the skirt using about 1/2" squares of wool. The bottom and sleeve edges are fringed and ragged. Sometimes thongs and fringes are moistened and twisted, though this is seen more with Southern tribes. Wool is often added at the neck with a leather thong whip stitched around it.
Some helpful tips:
Holes for lacing can be made with a sharp awl, or even faster is to hammer the hole with a nail. Cut plenty of thongs and taper the end to a point. Put a little hide glue on that tip and let it dry. Then you have a stiff tip that goes easily into the holes. On the dress illustration see how the fringe is cut at an angle so it lays pretty. Be careful with decoration. After you put all this effort into making a period correct dress you want to be sure that your decorating is just as correct. a separate article on beadwork and decoration will soon be added to this site. Work dresses were not decorated, and as a Woman of the Fur Trade you should consider this type of dress also, since we are all about getting out on the ground and actually doing all those things that women would have done back then.
This sketch shows the basic shape of the two hide dress.
These dresses were made of brain tanned leather and I strongly recommend it for authenticity, and I assure you that you will much happier with the finished product. If it is simply not possible, then at least make sure you do it with leather that is the color of smoked brain tan and use it rough side out.
DO NOT USE CHROME ORANGE!
Upper Missouri style
Get to work, and Enjoy!
Jill and Sandy
Carl Bodmer's America
People of the First Man
Book of Buckskinning Vol V.
George Catlin [any of the books with his paintings]
Primitive Indian Dresses by Susan Fectaeu