History of American Embroidery Part One: Native American Embroidery

Embroidery can be traced back well before the American Colonialists settled in the New World. Native American tribes spanning across North America used embroidery to adorn their moccasins, bags, clothing, wall hangings and ceremonial pieces. They used embroidery as a way to tell stories of their past paying homage to their Native ancestors. They believed the symbols they embroidered on to pieces were placed for protection and guidance. Most Native American embroidery pieces used things from nature: animal skins, shells, feather and fur.


Quillwork and Featherwork are two of the most popular techniques used by Native American tribes. This process involved dyeing feathers and porcupine quills using natural colors from flowers, berries, roots and bark before being attached to soft leather using animal sinew or soft thread. They used these materials to create intricate patterns that were unique to each tribe. Eastern woodland designs are often floral, while those of the Plains lean towards geometry. When European settlers arrived in America, and trade brought an influx of new materials, many native Americans began embroidering instead with glass beads, stitched into patterns resembling the movements of nature, such as flashes of lightning, ripples of water, clouds and stars.

The Blackfoot Native American tribe in the Northwest region of North America also put much significance on women who did quillwork. For the Blackfoot, women doing Quillwork had a religious purpose to it such as wearing special face paint that consisted of yellow ochre and animal fat which would be mixed in the palm of one’s hand and then a ‘V’ marking would be made across the forehead to the nose; This face paint was meant to protect the women who was participating in quillwork and would always be done before doing so. Red paint would then be used to draw a vertical line from the bridge of the nose to the forehead and altogether this would resemble the foot of a crow. They would also wear sacred necklaces each time they did quillwork as another form of protection. When a woman would become too old to continue her craft she would have a younger woman become an initiate, generally a relative, so that the craft could be passed on. Being a woman who made quillwork in the Blackfoot tribe held major importance as the few women who did quillwork would chose who would become the next assume the craft of quillwork. After being initiated, the young woman would be expected to craft a moccasin and would then would take it and place it on top of a hill as a form of offering to the sun.

The Arapaho and Odawa tribes also had religious significance for women in Quillwork as their works would represent sacred beings and connections to nature. Colors and shapes also had unique meanings allowing for diverse and unique designs carrying many cultural or religious meanings. The Odawa tribe in particular used many of the same colors as the Blackfoot tribe with the addition of white, yellow, purple, and gold.


Quillwork never died out as a living art form in the Northern Plains. Some communities that had lost their quillwork tradition have been able to revive the art form. For instance, no women quilled in the Dene community of Wha Ti, Northwest Territories by the late 1990s. The Dene Cultural Institute held two workshops there in 1999 and 2000, effectively reviving quillwork in Wha Ti.

The art form is very much alive today. Examples of contemporary, award-winning quillworkers include Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty, (Sioux-Assiniboine) artist; Dorothy Brave Eagle (Oglala Lakota) of Denver, Colorado; Kanatiiosh (Akwesasne Mohawk) of St. Regis Mohawk Reservation; Sarah Hardisty (Dene) of Jean Marie River, Northwest Territories; Leonda Fast Buffalo Horse (Blackfeet) of Browning, Montana; and Deborah Magee Sherer (Blackfeet) of Cut Bank, Montana.

Northern Lakes College of Alberta, Canada teaches a college-level course in quillwork art.


The Thread; https://blog.fabrics-store.com/2021/12/09/deep-roots-embroidery-in-the-united-states/, Deep Roots: Embroidery in the United States, October 14, 2022.

Wikipedia: Quillwork, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quillwork, Quillwork, October 14, 2022.


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