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Making a Crow Indian War Shirt

Updated on September 25, 2012
War shirt belonged to Nez Perce Chief Joseph sold at auction for $877,500
War shirt belonged to Nez Perce Chief Joseph sold at auction for $877,500

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.

My creation
My creation

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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    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      These shirts, blessed by medicine men, had a certain power to them that prevented the wearer from being hit by enemy bullets.

    • jimmar profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Michigan

      I made a decorative bow case several years ago for a friend in return for stick bow he made for me. No photos, wish I would have kept a record of that one.

    • 4wardthinker profile image


      6 years ago from Sierra Nevada CA

      Nice art work / costume design. Do you have other similar projects you have created to add to your collection?

    • jimmar profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Michigan

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I know about how the war shirts had to be earned through acts of bravery, and once a shirt was earned, so was a reputation that had to be lived up to. Not anyone could make a war shirt, it had to be made by another who had earned one. Not sure I have it correct or know much of the tradition, care to expand? Perhaps that would be a good idea for a hub!

    • juneaukid profile image

      Richard Francis Fleck 

      6 years ago from Denver, Colorado

      I enjoyed reading your hub realizing you had help from your mother-in-law of Chippewa origin. There is, of course, a sacred side to the Plains Indian war shirt that non-Indian children should know about. Thanks for this hub.


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