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Native American Textiles: History & Design

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

North America has been home to a wide number of Amerindian cultures, and each developed their own textile traditions. In this lesson, we'll explore the textile traditions of North America and see how these have changed over time.

Textiles of North America

The funny thing about the Amerindian people who lived in North America prior to the arrival of Europeans: they didn't walk around naked. Whether they lived in the peaks of the Rockies, the windy Great Plains, or the humid east, these peoples found clothes very useful. So like people around the world, Amerindian cultures developed textiles, cloths or fabrics. Being human, they also turned these into complex artistic traditions. North America is a large place, and we aren't going to be able to discuss the diverse traditions of all the Amerindian cultures here. We can, though, learn about some of the major trends among them. It's also important to remember that many of these are living traditions still being practiced, refined, and adapted by people today. Textiles are an art form that is ancient and new, ubiquitous and diverse, and has defined people across North America for millennia.

Textiles of the East

Let's start by looking at some traditions that emerged amongst the cultures of the East Coast, ranging from the woodlands of New England through the hot and humid South. In general, most clothing was made from animal skins, tanned or processed into leather. Homes, bags, and blankets were often made from leather as well and were carefully decorated. Many nations of the East Coast practiced intricate beadwork. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, these beads were generally made of stone or shell and sewed with quills or bone needles. Glass and metal beads became popular in later years. Amerindian nations of the East favored a technique now called the overland stitch, in which beads are strung onto the thread, then the entire strand is sewn onto the fabric separately. This technique allowed artists to create complex patterns of colored beads, notably the floral and fluid designs favored by peoples of the East.

Moccasins with floral beadwork
Moccasins

Amerindian nations of this region became noted for another technique as well, today called finger weaving. Most weaving traditions require the use of a loom to keep strands of thread or fabric in place, but finger weaving relies on a repetitive systems of knots to work threads together, essentially braiding them together by hand. This intensive process was most often used to create sashes, belts, and other similar textiles and allowed weavers to create some complex geometric and floral patterns.

Textiles of the Great Plains

Moving west, we arrive at the Great Plains. This region was largely inhabited by nomadic societies who followed herds of buffalo or other game. In these highly-mobile cultures, textiles were one of the most important arts since they were functional and transportable. Like the less-mobile cultures of the East, many Great Plains nations decorated their leather clothes and homes with beadwork, but preferred what is now called the lazy stitch . In this technique, beads are strung into strands and sewn to the leather using the same thread, giving the design a ribbed appearance. This technique encouraged the solid, geometric designs favored by cultures of the Plains.

Another technique used widely by nations of the Great Plains and still practiced today is ribbon work. This requires the use of silk ribbons, not available until Europeans entered the region in the 17th century and demonstrates the evolving styles over time. Long strips of silk fabric are cut into various patterns, then laid over each other and sewn onto a garment or fabric. The result is a shiny, multi-colored pattern commonly used in ceremonial outfits to this day.

Ribbon work
Ribbonwork

Textiles of the Southwest

Moving into the Southwest, we find cultures that were traditionally more urbanized, living in large, agricultural communities since about 1300 CE. These cultures domesticated cotton and used it to create yarns that were woven into blankets. Wool became popular after the arrival of European sheep. The Pueblo peoples of this region used both finger weaving and a wearable loom called a backstrap loom (common in Mexican Amerindian cultures) to create large blankets decorated with woven patterns that often had symbolic meaning. These blankets were amongst the most sought-after trade commodities of pre-European America and were traded widely across the continent.

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