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
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
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
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
Trade Fashions by Kathy Wilson and James Hanson
This early Blackfoot Wool Dress is in the
United States Indian 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.
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
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
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