Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 30, 2001 - Issue 39



Hairpipes-Part 1


 by Lynne Sageflower Pennington


The Hairpipe Series will be in Five parts:
Part 1 A brief history of hairpipes and the materials needed to make a hairpipe project.
Part 2 Instructions on: How to make ends the Old Way, Two Strand Bracelet, Two Strand choker with horsehair, Breastplate choker, Ermine Tail Choker, Turquoise nuggets and Hairpipe Choker.
Part 3 Instructions on: Bandolier Necklace, Crow loop necklace, and Pouch with Hairpipe fringe, Hatband for Western hats, Watch Bands.
Part 4 Instructions on: Antiquing and dying Hairpipes, Men's Breast plates ( 3 types).
Part 5 Instructions on: Woman's Breast plates ( 2 types) , Denim Vest or Short Coat with Hairpipe decoration.

There is a fascinating history to Hairpipes. If you would like to read it I suggest read it at the following site: Smithsonian Institution Libraries Electronic Edition 1996 of John C. Ewers, "Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment" at It gives the history of hairpipes from the beginning before white man came to present time.
These Pictures are from the Plates at that site:  

Red Cloud, Oglala
Red Cloud, Oglala

White Horse, Kiowa (1870)
White Horse, Kiowa (1870)

Teton Dakota woman (before 1900)
Teton Dakota woman (before 1900)


Before beginning a hairpipe craft you need supplies. Here are the basic supplies you need.

  • Leather punch pliers or Awl
  • Leather straps ( to make spacers)
  • Leather lace ( for ties)
  • Beads ( various sizes)
  • Hairpipes ( come in various sizes)
  • Sinew

Before I get into instructions for making crafts with hairpipes let me give you a little information.

Buying beads can be frustrating ...
  • Colors can vary from dye lot to dye lot.
  • Sizes can also vary according to time and place of manufacture.
  • Some colors are not available in all sizes.
  • Craft stores and Native American craft supply stores use different names for the same beads.

I would suggest that you buy all the beads you need for your project from one place, ALL AT ONCE, otherwise you could have trouble matching colors and sizes later.

Here is a link to a good explanation of bead terminology.

When ordering, you MUST use the correct terms or you will get something you did not order.

Bead Sizes:
  • Seed Beads come in many sizes from 10/0 to 18/0 - the larger the number, the smaller the bead.
  • Pony Beads are usually available in sizes 5/0 and 8/0 (same as above).
  • Crow Beads are sized from 6 to 9 mm.
  • Tile Beads - 6mm tube like beads
  • Glass Trade Beads - 7 to 8mm
  • French Brass Beads - 8mm
  • Mini French Brass beads - 6mm
  • French Oval Brass Beads - 6x8mm and 8x11mm
  • Fire Polished beads - 8mm
  • Round Glass beads - 6 to 10 mm
  • Glass Rondelle beads - 6mm

You can use Venetian beads, Chevrons and any other beads you want as long as they are not over sized.

Some beads are also available in plastic rather than glass. This could be helpful from a weight or cost standpoint.

For the center of chokers or as decoration on breastplates you can use Abalone or conch Discs.


In craft stores you will find bone or plastic spacers. I have been asked how to make them out of leather if one can not find them.

Materials needed:

  • Leather stripping 3/8" in width
  • Leather hole punchers or an Awl

Use the following guide for spacers:

  • 2 strand necklace-Size of spacer 3/8" x 5/8"
  • 3 strand necklace-Size of spacer 3/8" x 7/8"
  • 4 strand necklace-Size of spacer 3/8"x 11/8"

If you need more holes for the spacer add 1/4" for each additional hole.
Some suppliers have them ready made and have strips already punched for making breastplates.

Hairpipes come in various materials and sizes. They are made from bone, horn, wood or plastic. They vary in size from 1/2 to 4-1/2 inches. In addition, two shapes are commonly available ... tapered at both ends (hairpipes) and tubular (Tubes).

Bone and horn hairpipes range in color from light ( bone) to amber ( natural horn). Buffalo horn hairpipes can range in color from brown to black. Plastic hairpipes are available in white, black, red, and turquoise.

Bone hairpipes can be dyed to produce an antiqued look or will take on a patina with age.

Hairpipes vary in weight according to the material with bone and horn hairpipes being heaviest and plastic lightest. This is very important to know if you intend to wear your hairpipe breastplate suspended from your neck!!!

Plastic hairpipes are also much cheaper than bone or horn ... plastic hairpipe prices are typically 25% (or less) than that of bone. That could be an important consideration too!!!

Dentalium shells can also be used to make chokers or breastplates instead of hairpipes.


Bone Tubes

Natural Sinew, of course, the "real tradition" thread of Native America. It is available from some of the better Native American craft supply companies. Typical lengths run from 10 to 20 inches. It takes some learning to use natural sinew as one has to "split out" individual threads which are then knotted together to make threads of required length.

Imitation Sinew can be bought in in two weights, Regular and Thin. The best sinew to use for strength to your project is regular. The thin is used for more delicate projects.

I use the natural color sinew but it can also be purchased in black, white, red, yellow, green and blue. It usually comes on spools of 10 yards, 20 yards or 300 yards (8 oz).


For most projects, you will need leather to use to tie, for example, a choker on your neck.

There are three different leather types of ties you can use:

  • Leather Thong - sold in 1mm & 2mm per yard
  • Soft buckskin Thong - sold in 1/4 in width and 48 inches long
  • Suede Leather lace - sold by the spool-25 yards ( comes in a variety of colors)

When I am making chokers in the Old way I buy a hide to use for my ends instead of using a spacer on each end. You will see this in some of the instructions I give. There is another way to tie your chokers on your neck. After making the ends, make a hole in the end and attach a leather cord and stop spring.

Leather Punch or Awl
You can find a leather punch pliers or Scratch awl in craft stores. They have also have leather punchers that you can hit with a hammer to make the holes.

In the instructions for the projects you will see other materials listed. You can purchase them through suppliers. Below is a list of suppliers.

This is the end of Hairpipes -Part 1. The next, Part two will give the instructions for: Two Strand Bracelet, Two Strand choker with horsehair, Breastplate choker, Ermine Tail Choker, Turquoise nuggets and Hairpipe Choker.

Related Links:  
Craft Supplies  
Crazy Crow


Steve Eagle

Wandering Bull

Matoska Trading Company
Buckskin Fur and Leather Co
Tandy Leather




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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.



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