Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Native American Artistry in Textiles

In the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology, are skillfully crafted items that demonstrate the artistry of the Native American cultures who created them. This week in acknowledgement of Native American Heritage Month we will share the preservation efforts undertaken to restore and preserve one of these beautiful pieces. Also highlighted from the collection is a beaded belt and purse.

Figure 1 Delaware blouse before treatment, from the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

This woman’s shirt, described in 1929 as “very old,” was acquired by ethnohistorian Frank G. Speck while visiting the Delaware Tribe who reside in Oklahoma. The blouse was in fair condition, but preservation would restore color to the garment and insure its stabilization for future display. The blouse is fabricated from red-dyed cotton, has ruffled sleeve cuffs, and a collar ornamented with German silver brooches and domed buttons. The conservator noted the following observations when examining the blouse prior to treatment.

The buttons are attached to the shirt with white cotton thread, and there were no holes in the garment. The shirt, however, was extremely creased and wrinkled from years of flat storage. Several areas of the red-dyed fabric were faded due to exposure to natural light. Importantly, green corrosion products were evident on most of the German silver ornaments which adorned the collar. German Silver is also known as nickel silver and is a silver-white allow of copper, zinc and nickel which contains no silver. Corrosion products present on the metallic discs can weaken cotton fibers which hold the buttons in position and may permanently stain surrounding fabric.

The conservation measures taken to preserve this blouse included a microscopic examination of the fibers and stitching methods employed in its construction, a tool useful for establishing the period of use of the garment. This analysis determined that the body is a single piece of fabric with a neck opening cut in the center. The ends of the fabric were hand stitched. Sleeves and ruffles were applied by both hand stitching and lockstitch machine sewing. These traits enabled the conservator to determine that the shirt was likely made in the early 20th century.

Figure 2 Blouse after treatment

To restore the color of the shirt, the creases were released within a humidification tank and the metallic discs were cleaned and preserved with a microcrystalline wax. The body of the shirt was covered with “Stabiltex,” a red material attached by hand with red silk single ply thread. The conservation treatment was funded by the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation and will go far to ensure the long-term preservation of this beautiful blouse.

Figure 3 closeup detail of the German silver disc adorning the collar of the Delaware blouse (Tàkhwèmpës). From the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

This style of blouse is a traditional woman’s garment often worn for dance ceremonies. It was worn with a skirt adorned with ribbons in various patterns, leggings, and moccasins. A dance shawl, brooch, hair combs, headpieces and fans were also worn with these garments. There are many traditional dances of the Delaware culture. Some dances are named after foods, such as the Corn or Bean Dance; animals, such as the Raccoon and Duck Dance; and some are named for Native American tribes, such as the Cherokee Dance. Children learn these dances from their elders and feature at celebrations such as the Annual Delaware Pow Wow, held by the Delaware Tribe of Indians who held their 57th Pow Wow in May of this year.

Many associate beadwork with Native American cultures but often don’t realize that the designs created are symbolic to the creator and their tribe. The earliest beadwork was created before European contact featuring designs made from shell, bone, porcupine quills, seeds, and leather. Unfortunately, many of these elements did not survive burial in the acidic soils of the Eastern Woodlands, the homelands of the Delaware, Seneca, Cayuga, and many other groups. The tradition of beadwork has survived, however, and is skillfully executed by Native American artists across the country, many who have multi-generational heritage as beadworkers.

A visit from Lucy Parks Blalock of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, now located in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to the State Museum was an opportunity for us to meet the creator of a beaded belt in the museum’s collection. Mrs. Blalock made the belt in the late 1920s when ethnohistorian Frank Speck visited the Delaware peoples living in Oklahoma. Mr. Speck was collecting pieces for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission at the time. Mrs. Blalock did not know that her belt was in the museum’s collection and was surprised when she was reunited with her beadwork. Mrs. Blalock spoke the Delaware language and was an important resource for linguist Jim Rementer, who has compiled the Lenape Dictionary and recorded songs and stories, helping to preserve these for future generations.

Figure 4 Lucy Parks Blalock with her beaded belt, photo from the Collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Figure 5 beaded purse from the Collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

This beaded purse was also collected by Frank Speck and illustrates a combination of beading and silk ribbon trim in a colorful design. Denise Neil-Binion’s discussion of Delaware beadwork attributes floral motifs as a common design element of the 19th century. The red ribbon work on this piece has faded, but the striking design and vibrant colors of the beadwork remain as an example of skilled craftsmanship.

We hope you have enjoyed this blog and will continue to visit us as we highlight the collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology. View additional pieces from our collections.

Resources (PDF)

J.A.M.,. "Frank Gouldsmith Speck." Museum Bulletin XV, no. 1 (July, 1950): 3-5. Accessed November 22, 2022.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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