The history of embroidery in America would naturally begin with the advent of the Pilgrim Mothers, if one ignored the work of native Indians.
This, however, would be unfair to a primitive art, which accomplished, with perfect appropriateness to use a remarkable adaptation of circumstance and material, the ornamentation of personal apparel.
The porcupine quill embroidery of American Indian women is unique among the productions of primitive peoples, and some of the dresses, deerskin shirts, and moccasins with borders and flying designs in black, red, blue, and shining white quills, and edged with fringes hung with the teeth and claws of game, or with beautiful small shells, are as truly objects of art as are many things of the same decorative intent produced under the best conditions of civilization.
To create beauty with the very limited resources of skins, hair, teeth, and quills of animals, colored with the expressed juice of plants, was a problem very successfully solved by these dwellers in the wilderness,
and the results were practically and æsthetically valuable.
In the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, D. C., there has happily been preserved a most interesting collection of these early efforts.
The small deerskin shirts worn as outer garments by the little Sioux were perhaps among the most interesting and elaborate.
They are generally embroidered with dyed moose hair and split quills of birds in their natural colors, large split quills or flattened smaller quills used whole.
The work has an embossed effect which is very striking. A coat for an adult of Sioux workmanship, made of calfskin thicker and less pliant than the deerskin ordinarily used for garments, carries a broad band of quill embroidery, broken by whorls of the same, the center of each holding a highly decorated tassel made of narrow strips of deerskin, bound at intervals with split porcupine quills.
These ornamental tassels carry the idea of decoration below the bands, and have a changeable and living effect which is admirable. In a smaller shirt, the whole body is covered at irregular intervals with whorls of the finest porcupine quill work, edged by a border of interlaced black and white quills, finished with perforated shells.
Many of the designs are edged with narrow zigzag borders of the split quills in natural colors carefully matched and lapped in very exact fashion. There is one small shirt, made with a decorative border of tanned ermine skins in alternate squares of fur and beautifully colored quill embroidery, not one tint of which is out of harmony with the soft yellow of the deerskin body.
The edge of the shirt is finished in very civilized fashion, with ermine tails, each pendant, banded with blue quills, at alternating heights, making a shining zigzag of blue along the fringe. The simplicity of treatment and purity of color in this little garment were fascinating, and must have invested the small savage who wore it with the dignity of a prince.
The mother who evolved the scheme and manner of decoration carried her bit of genius in an uncivilized squaw body, but had none the less a true feeling for beauty, and in this mother task lifted the plane of the art of her people to a higher level.