The Two hide Dress
|Photo by Al Theilen|
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
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
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