Making a Crow Indian War Shirt
I visited the Field Museum in Chicago and was impressed with the collection of Native American clothing. Something about the collection of War shirts really stuck with me. They were simple, colorful and beautiful. I decided then that it would be interesting to make a reproduction. Of course as with many of my ambitious projects I usually tend to adjust my expectations of the final result as I get into it. I thought if I made a shirt for my children, a child sized shirt, I could take some liberties with the design.
My mother-in-law is of Native American decent being part Chippewa, and she is a talented artist. Luckily for me one of her skills is bead work. She gave me a few tips but most of the design and fabrication ideas came from studying photos and from trial and error. All the beading and stitching is mine.
The leather for the shirt is brain tanned and smoked elk hide, which was donated by my mother-in-law. I cut the body using one of my smaller shirts (from when I was less sedentary) for a pattern. The sleeves were just basically long rectangles of leather sewn into a tube shape. Using artificial sinew, I hand stitched the body halves together then stitched on the sleeve tubes. I cut a V for the neck so the opening was large enough to fit a child’s oversized head through. The neck opening was covered with a flap of fringed V-shaped leather onto which was stitched a thick piece of bright red wool fabric. The flap was only sewn on one side of the V and held closed with a tie near the neck opening. The hair is some that I sneeked into the barn and clipped from the tail of my wife’s horse when she was not around. It was bunched, and held together at the end with silicone calking then wrapped with red yarn. A long piece of sinew was attached before the yarn wrap to allow the tassels to be tied to the shirt.
Beads were sewn onto long narrow buckskin leather panels, then stitched onto the front of the shirt, but draping slightly over the shoulder. I used thin monofilament fishing line as thread. The beading pattern around the neck was applied directly to the wool fabric. Beading is a painstaking process. It takes lots of practice to make it look good. Talent certainly helps also, but I had neither. I found that the beads needed to be sorted by size as they varied in thickness and just counting beads in a string did not make a consistently wide pattern. I also found that stitches needed to be made about every 3-4 beads to hold the string in place or else the beads would droop.
The authentic shirts also usually have panels on the sleeves but those were rationalized away, being this was a child’s War Shirt (doesn’t sound right I know) when I found how painstakingly difficult beading actually was. Many original shirts also had much more fringe, but again….after a month into the project I was looking for ways to finish up.
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