Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Making a Dress the Nez Perce Way


My current WIP is set among the Nez Perce Indians and I've been reading a lot about them.

For a woman to make a dress she had to first tan two deer hides. That meant soaking the hides in water, then scraping the meat and fat from one side and the hair from the other with sharp stones. They were stretched then she worked the brain of the deer into the hide making it a soft leather.

When the hides were ready to make into a dress, she used a bone awl to punch holes and sinew or buckskin string to sew the skins together. The awl was used to make a hole and the end of the buckskin was moistened with saliva then rolled on their thigh to shape and tighten it. When the end dried it was then pushed through the holes made by the awl. The shoulder seams were constructed by sewing the back legs of the hide together. The sleeves were only elbow length. The tail at the neckline of the dress was folded down to form a faux yoke. The sides were sewn together and at the bottom of the dress, four half circular pieces were sewn between the neck and leg extensions of the hide to even out the hem and give more fullness for walking and riding.

The hair side of the hide was placed against the body for softness and warmth.

Fringes were added at the bottom, sleeves, and sided seams for ornamentation. The yoke and sleeves were solidly beaded. Some ceremonial dresses with all the beading could weigh up to 40 pounds. Every day dresses had minimal beading.

I didn't get a clear idea of how long this would all take, but I'm sure it would be a week or longer to make one garment. I'm pretty happy that I can purchase my fabric and use my sewing machine when I get the urge to make a garment.

Source: Nez Perce Women in Transition, 1877-1990 by Caroline James

Paty Jager
www.patyjager.blogspot.com
www.patyjager.net

30 comments:

Melinda said...

I loved this post. Paty you have done an excellent job. Thank you for sharing this

Walk in harmony,
Melinda

Obe said...

Great post, I didn't realize that weight of the ceremonial dress. I find this article makes me want to learn more.

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Paty, I have a tremendous interest in the Nez Perce, and your post today is invaluable. I love learning about this great and heroic tribe. Thanks.

M. M. Justus said...

Fascinating stuff. I have been known to dye my own fabric for my quilts, but preparing hides is considerably further than I would want to go to obtain fabric [g].

Emma Lai said...

Great information, Paty! My question is did they use the fat, meat and hair they scraped off? And if yes, what for?

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

As a seamstress I found this blog very interesting. Guess I won't complain about having to drive for an hour to buy fabric anymore...

Margaret Tanner said...

Great post Paty, that was so interesting. How time consuming it must have been.
Margaret

Paty Jager said...

Melinda, thank you. I have enjoyed every minute of the researching for my trilogy set among the Nez Perce.

Paty Jager said...

Obe, that's what I like to do when I write- enlighten people.

Paty Jager said...

Tanya, You're welcome.

Paty Jager said...

M.M., I agree! And they even would chew on the buckskin to make it buttery soft for both clothing for the children, cradle boards, and moccasins.

Paty Jager said...

Emma,

They cooked with the fat either by frying the fry bread or by putting it in with the dried and mashed roots and meat. The meat they either dried or made soup and the deer hair was used for ornamentation, insulation, and charms. In another post I'll tell you how they used buffalo hair. Something I would have never thought of!

Paty Jager said...

Paisley, I agree!

Paty Jager said...

Margaret, I agree. I complain when I have to set up my sewing machine to make a repair or sew something.

Emma Lai said...

Cool info, Paty! I knew they used almost every part of animals, but it's nice to know how.

Kathy Otten said...

Thanks for sharing this piece of history. I'm not sure I like the part about using the brains. Kind of creeps me out to think of doing that part. It's good to know though. Next time I read a historical romance that mentions a buckskin dress, I'll have a much better understanding.

Paty Jager said...

Kathy, LOL, I agree about the brains but then they used what worked. I have some other disgusting info I'll use in future blogs. ;)

Susan Macatee said...

Sounds like a lot of work, Paty. And the weight! Ouch! Don't think I'd like wearing that!

Great info!

Paty Jager said...

Susan, can you imagine wearing a ceremonial dress that weighed 40 pounds and dancing?

Clover Autrey said...

Wow. That was very interesting. I can't imagine walking around in a 40 pound dress, almost as bad as the high heels you can't wait to take off.

Paty Jager said...

Clover, LOL- I agree!

Heidiwriter said...

Isn't it amazing what women "back then" were able to accomplish?!
Heidi

Paty Jager said...

Heidi,

I find it intriguing how they managed to make do with what they had.

Allison Knight said...

Paty,

When I wrote, A Treasure For Sara, my hero was a trapper. I learned about tanning hide. (Ugh) The process of tanning, which the Nez Perce would have used, took from several weeks to months, just to tan the hide. So, I suspect the actually sewing didn't take as much time as the tanning.

Allison Knight

Paty Jager said...

Thanks, Allison, That's good info to know.

Eunice Boeve said...

Good info. I'm wondering how the woman nursed her baby. I thought she might have a dress with a laced up front or maybe she'd undo laces at the side of her dress, nurse on one side, relace and unlace the other side and continue nursing the child. Also I wondered if her breasts "leaked" as some do, if the buckskin would repel the milk so it wouldn't stain her dress. Ditto with menstrual and childbirth blood. Sometimes these women were traveling at such times. I also read Caroline James' book. On p. 80, she mentions using buffalo hide with the hair on it or other hides with fur for menstrual blood. Also buckskin with milkweed on it. All was buried afterward. I wonder how they kept the hides in place. I also have a Nez Perce woman in the book I'm working on now who gives birth shortly after the Big Hole battle, hence my interest.

Paty Jager said...

LOL, Eunice, You just gave away some of the information I planned to share in another post.

Loretta C. Rogers said...

Thank goodness for my old Singer sewing machine.

www.lorettacrogersbooks.com

Eunice Boeve said...

Sorry, Paty. I'll be watching for your next post on this subject.

Angel Bousquet said...

I do have one of theese dresses,im trying to sell, it does weigh around 40 pounds. If anyone knows of anybody in the tribe that would be interested reply and let me know, it is made of bucksin,with beading, and teeth. I can send a pic. I believe it is vintage, and it has glass beads.