Native American decorative needlework

Pair of shoes embroidered with moose hair. North America, mid-19th century. Pair of shoes embroidered with moose hair. North America, mid-19th century. Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. T.10-1929.

A wide variety of materials was used to decorate indigenous clothing in North America before contact with the Europeans. These decorative materials included bone, feathers, fur, leather fringes, quills (North American quillwork) and shells.

After contact with European and non-native American traders, items such as buttons, floss silk embroidery, glass beads, metal (e.g., brass bells, conchos, silver coins, tin jingle cones, etc.) and ribbons were also used to embellish clothing. Quillwork, however, continued to be an important form of decoration. The introduction of glass beads in the early nineteenth century led to its gradual decline, though it never entirely disappeared. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, aniline dyes, also introduced by traders, became popular. This introduction led to a major decline in traditional techniques.

Some of the earliest surviving examples of Native American decorative needlework, dating from the early seventeenth century, are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (UK). They are in the Tradescant Collection and include a Canadian caribou skin shirt decorated with fringes and porcupine quillwork (AN 1685b.209), and a mantle of white-tail deer skin decorated with shell bead work (Powhatan’s mantle; 1685 B no. 205).

See also: Canadian leather tunics.

V&A online catalogue (retrieved 30 June 2016).


Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 17:59