According to Dr. Zenon Pohoresky of the Saskatchewan Archives, different colours could be obtained from natural substances. Red came from pussy willow buds or tamarack bark or the red ochre streaks in soil or rocks. Yellow came from buffalo gallstones or from some willow barks. Blue was made from dried duck dung, green from water plants in lakes, white from “bleached earth”, brown from rotten wood, and black from charcoal. Other dyes were likely made from such plants as the fruit of the strawberry blite as well as many roots, barks and mosses boiled in water. Many plants have possibilities for making a deep coloured dye. For wool a “mordant” such as alum was used to “set” them or make them permanent. As yet we have found no evidence of such knowledge among the Indians although sometimes quills were soaked in urine for some reason. Some method, probably boiling, must have been used to stain the quill, or fill the hollow centre with a coloured material. When the traders introduced brighter commercial dyes, the traditional soft, muted hues of natural materials began to be discarded.
In any case the craft was considered sacred and those who practiced it must have kept their secrets from the common folk, as the medicine men kept theirs. Doubtless an expert quill embroiderer would command large “prices” in exchange for other treasured articles.
Some accounts indicate that among certain tribes the pieces of dyed quill were made to stick to the skin clothing by means of an adhesive. The “paint brush” for applying this was made from the porous honeycomb bones along the edge of a buffalo shoulder blade or hipbone.
Since the designs had ritual or ceremonial meanings, one expects the religious symbols of the tribe to predominate. It certainly was so among the Beavers, who often used the circle and the crossed axes corresponding to our north-south-east-west compass face. Only geometrical designs such as rickrack borders, stripes or rectangles appear, even after the commercial beads replaced quills. Such designs still appear in the ceremonial costumes of the Sarcee. In some cases small slits were punched in the skin and the ends of the quills were thrust through and secured with adhesive.
The more modern art of quillwork is still preserved by certain old women of the Slaveys around Fort Nelson. Instead of making a flat strap or “braid” on the loom, they seem to lay the quills on the tanned skin in a first short diagonal line. They then lay a stick of commercial thread across the quill at the desired edge of the embroidery, the needle going only just under the surface of the skin. The quill is then bent up at right angles. A quill of another colour is then laid alongside and fastened down in the same way. When three colours are laid side by side, and secured with a backstitch, there are three free ends laid up over the securing stitches making them invisible. The worker then begins to weave the free ends over and under like a “basket stitch”, securing the quills again at the other side of the strip of embroidery and again beading them down. The nimble fingers that can braid and sew tiny quills are truly skilled. It is an ancient craft, especially practiced in our area. No wonder that a pair of moccasins with such embroidery on the vamp around the seam done with the convenience of commercial dyes, thread and needles commands a high price. When the work is well done, the thread of both warp and woof was concealed. It does not begin to pay for the labour!
When beads became available, designs were made on moccasins. It is not clear whether the Northern Beavers did much beadwork on their ceremonial garments but it is evident that the Sarcees adopted elaborate ornamentation. Their costumes for the Calgary Stampede parade and their own ceremonies are heavy with beads.
There are two methods of beading– one sewing each bead on separately, the other stringing the beads and then catching down the thread which holds them. In careful work a stitch fastens each bead. If a number of beads are held only by the central thread, the result is called “lazy squaw stitch.” It is not as durable.
Ceremonial garments may be passed from mother to daughter, or grandmother to granddaughter. Men’s ceremonial garments may also be passed on before the owner’s death. The wife of each new owner may add to the design until it becomes thickly encrusted.
The Beavers and Sarcee still use the geometric designs. The Cree use elaborate flower motifs.
Since silk thread became available, both tribes have learned to do very beautiful embroidery on leather, the Crees’ designs being reminiscent of Japanese prints.
The loomed bands formerly used for brow bands; belts and sewn on garments and harness are now being executed with beads where, in native craft centres, the children are learning the ancient art. Such beaded bands are now popular as a necklace with a medallion on the front. It is to be hoped that the characteristic traditional designs will be retained.
There is a method of weaving such bands using only one thread. It is a more beautiful web, but much more tedious as each bead must be picked up separately. The writer learned to do this form of beadwork as a very small girl.
Another form of decoration nearly died out but was reintroduced by the nuns in some of the schools. A few old women can still do it. Moose hair is now dyed with commercial dyes. A bundle of hairs is tied as one does to make a pompom. When doubled and sewn securely on the skin garment, the bunch fluffs out. It is then trimmed so that the resulting tuft is like a perfect hemisphere standing on the skin. It takes considerable skill to make the tufts dense enough, and trim them evenly enough to be perfect. Arranged as a flower design, and touched up with silk embroidery “stems”, it is very beautiful. A tiny piece of skin about 4 by 4 inches mounted like a “needle-point” picture in a shadow box frame was priced at $35 when displayed in a Winnipeg shop. They could not get enough to supply the demand, as few women care to make such things for sale.
Around 1970, the writer was fortunate to secure a pair of moccasin slippers, decorated around the vamp with genuine quillwork, and having the high-relief moose hair design on the vamp. An elderly woman made the moccasins in Fort Nelson.