Trade wool Dresses:



Trade wool dresses :

    The fur trade made wool available to the Native American tribes and was early substituted for skins in making garments, at least  when it could be afforded.It also became a status symbol of wealth since anyone could have buckskin.


Mountaineers took pride in dressing their wives in the finest outfits available and Joe Meek, for instance, talks about his wife being dressed in Red and Blue Broad Cloth.


 Denig had been  in the fur trade since 1833 and in the early 1850's wrote a description of Crow women, stating that "The women have scarlet or blue cloth dresses, others white cotillions made of dressed skins of bighorn sheep, which are covered across breast and back with rows of elk teeth and sea shells.  These frocks are fringed along the sides and round the bottom.The fringes are wrought with porcupine quills and feathers of many colors.  The price of elk teeth is 100 for a good horse or in money the value of $50.00.  A frock is not complete unless it has 300 elk teeth, which with the other shells, skin, etc. could not be bought for less than $200.00"


 Kurz sketched a crow woman wearing a trade cloth dress in 1851, that shows some fringe at the bottom, the triangle symbol at the bottom, and elk teeth across the bodice.

    He also has this to say about the Cree: "After their return to the trading post [in the spring] and the proceeds of their winter's work exchanged for blankets and cloth of various colors the camp looks gay and lively.  Both young and old of both sexes lay aside their filthy habiliments and adorn themselves in those of European manufacture.  A profusion of ornaments is worn.  Most parts of dress are garnished in some of the forms before referred to and a general neatness is exibited, leading one to suppose that they were an entirely different people.  This cleanly appearence, however only lasts a short time.  As different suits are never thought of nor any washing done the brilliant colors of English goods become gradually obscured by dirt so that in the fall a new supply of winter clothing is as desireable as the spring exchange.



The Cree woman's dress was a long slip supported by straps over the shoulders.  James Isham observed that Cree women near the Hudson Bay Posts were making their dresses of trade cloth as early as 1743. Kurz described and sketched skin dresses of this style worn by Plains Cree and Chippewa women who visited Fort Union in 1851. These tribes were the poorer ones and other tribe women scorned them for their old fashioned dress when the deertail dress had come into style.



Harriet modeling her strap dress of saved list trade wool. The sleeves were worn during cooler weather. 


    Pattern for strap dress are in Feminine Fur Trade Fashions by Kathy Wilson and James Hanson

    For other Upper Missouri tribes the first wool dresses were cut as much like the deertail dresses as possible. Women experimenting with this new material probably discovered that cloth cut on the bias did not work as well as square cuts. They still kept resemblences to the deertail dresses in the fact that they often had tabs at the skirt bottoms like the legs on the deertail dresses, and the open sleeves. Also some had the arches cut out at the bottom. Decorations also resembled those on the hide dresses. Buckskin was sometimes used on these dresses as inserts or fringe. A good example of this is the early Blackfoot dress which has been combined with buckskin either for its pretty effect or because cloth was expensive.


   This early Blackfoot wool dress is in United States Indain Service collection.

This is a representation of this Dress

Made by Sandy Hunt




    Most trade cloth dresses were made from two lengths of material [saved list wool]seamed at the shoulders in order to make use of the white selvadge as a decorative bottom edge of the dress. An opening was left for the head, then sleeves added, and triangular gussets sewn into the sides to give extra width.


 Measure from your shoulders to mid calf and add 1/2 inch seam allowance for length. Measure hips and add 4", use 1/2 this measurement for the dress width.


Cut two of these and sew together at the shoulder, leaving about 10 or 11" for the neck opening. Cut a curve for the neck, deeper in the front.


Measure from where your shoulder seam would be down to wrist [some dresses had shorter sleeves than this if that is your preference].  Width of the sleeves is about 21 to 23 inches. Sew sleeves to the dress body, then measure for gussets. They are about 8 or 9" wide at the bottom and extend up into the sleeve an inch or two. You may want the dropped tabs that echo the deer legs of the deer tail dress or you may want the gussets to be flush with the dress bottom. Sew the gussets to the dress sides and you are then ready to decorate.

                                                              Dress pattern:

This shows pieces laid out to use the white selvadge as decorative effect at sleeve and dress bottom. 





Here are some ideas for decorating your wool dresses:




Green Crow style list cloth dress decorated with elk teeth and wool strips of different colors. Though red and blue were by far the most common, green is also listed in some ledgers and was much admired by the Crow. The red saved list dress is decorated with lumpy money cowries which was traded from coastal tribes. Note the white selvadge edge or the "saved List."


 Both these ladies are wearing commercial leather drop tail belts, one with a buckle, but we have found no documentation of such being worn during fur trade times. Instead,belts were probably rawhide tied with thongs or a long strip of buckskin tied in a knot. Not to be critical of these ladies, since these pictures were taken a number of years ago and we are always adding to our knowledge and improving our outfits. I just wanted to bring this to your attention so that you could benefit from our past mistakes.

            This dress made by Candi has fringe placement that echos the lines of the buckskin two hide dresses.
            Since early dresses were made to resemble the buckskin ones, this could very well have been done.


Blackfoot style dress with arches cut out at the bottom as in the buckskin dresses, two colors of wool used,and cloth ticking used as trim. The classic Blackfoot triangle with two squares at the bottom are also used.

 I have heard many interpretations of these women's symbols, in that they may represent uterous and either ovaries or kidneys, or that that the triangle symbolizes the buffalo or that it was worn by women who could call the buffalo, although I am not sure of this one since it is on so very many Blackfoot dresses. The exact meaning may have been lost with time.  

The beadwork band across the bodice is also classic Blackfoot style with the dip in the middle representing the deer tail of the old style dresses. Normally only two colors are used in the band, one color for the two outside strips, and a contrasting color in the middle. a third color is sometimes added for the strip on the sleeve. This was an early dress of mine, and now I would probably use blue beads in place of the red if I had it to do over again.




Cheyenne style dress decorated with trade ribbon and money cowries. This dress has long sleeves down to the wrist.

Oops! Wrong style belt again,  I have not found the large domed discs documented on women's belts in the fur trade.



Crow style saved list dress with two colors of wool, buckskin fringe, blue pound beads, and elk teeth. Elk teeth were prized as symbols of long life since they remained long after the rest of the elk had crumbled to dust. Since an elk only has two ivories, they were quite valuable, and many dresses when examined closely have carved bone imitation teeth mixed among the real ones. The triangle of contrasting cloth at the neck of Crow dresses is a reminder of the deer tail folded down on the buckskin ones. During the mid 19th century Crow began to make closed, tapered sleeves and started bringing the elk teeth decoration on the dresses down below the belt so don't be mislead by pictures showing this style change. Notice the rawhide belt!



    While actual examples of wool dresses from the fur trade are non existent, there are cloth dresses mentioned by mountaineers in their journals and  we do have the 1850's brief descriptions by Denig and Kurz, along with the Kurz sketches.By comparing those descriptions and sketches with early photos, and with our knowledge of the two hide dresses, we can get a feel for what the dresses may have looked like, but without actual specimens there must be some conjecture and speculation. There are also accounts of Indian women in European fashion, and this will be delt with in another article.

        Sandy, Jill and a bit of the Crazy touch


Indians of the upper Missouri by Ewers
Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri by Denig
Book of Buckskinning Vol. V
Feminine Fur Trade Fashions by Wilson and Hanson
Hau Kola by Hall
A Persistent Vision by Conn
Journal of Rudolph Friederich Kurz

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