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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Tear Dress Course Helps To Keep Tradition, Culture Alive
by Cherokee Phoenix staff
Tahlequah, OK - Passing on the skills of crafts and arts help keep traditions alive and culture shared.

On Tuesday evening, several women gathered at the United Keetoowah Band John Hair Museum and Cultural Center to learn about making tear dresses from Leona Bendabout.

All the participants could sew, but wanted to learn more about tear dresses.

The workshop began with some background on Bendabout and the lavender tear dress on display. She wears it when singing with D.J. McCarter and the Cherokee Adult Choir.

For about 25 years, Bendabout has been making tear dresses for herself, friends, family, and to sell. She lost her husband five years ago.

“This is what keeps me going,” Bendabout said. “He was an ordained minister. He’s still with me.”

Her most famous customer is also her favorite actor, Tommy Lee Jones.

“He bought it when he was in Tahlequah and wears it in the movie ‘Missing,’” she said.

Last month, Bendabout moved from Salina to Tahlequah.

“I made my first dress in ninth grade; it was blue with yellow flowers,” she said. “I like sewing. I’ve made tear dresses in all colors.”

The smallest print is called Cherokee print, she said.

A tear dress can be cleaned in a washing machine by turning it inside out and adding a tablespoon of white vinegar to keep the color.

“I like to use two colors. Turquoise is the main Cherokee color, with red, black, orange and yellow,” Bendabout said. “I get colors that I like together, like the brown door frame and beige wall - that looks good together. Or Ernestine Berry’s outfit of gray, black and red look good together.”

The history of the dress was considered.

“I read when the Trail of Tears went on, there was a lot of sadness; they buried loved ones along the road,” said Bendabout. “They started tearing their dresses to make bandages, and used their dresses to wipe their tears.”

A friend in North Carolina has her mother’s tear dress.

“It had a bonnet with it and was plain blue with flowers and a short ruffle on the end of the skirt,” she said. “It had short sleeves and was not gathered at the waist. The top was more like a bib.”

“My mom said they didn’t have scissors, so she’d measure it out and tear it,” said Berry, director of the United Keetoowah Band John Hair Museum and Cultural Center.

Patterns were discussed Tuesday, as were details of constructing a tear dress, with Bendabout displaying a pattern against the dress on a mannequin. The skirt had four pattern pieces.

“The pattern calls for 7-1/2 yards, but I cut it down to 6 yards,” she said. “You measure your waistline for the band.”

For trim, she uses 5/8ths-inch ribbon, because “it shows up better.”

About a half a yard of matching or complementary fabric is used on top of the skirt, sleeve and top as an appliquéd accent. It can be a different shade: lavender over purple, black over red or a print over a solid color.

She uses a half-yard for the band. The diamond, a square set at an angle, is the most common modern design, and three crosses were a traditional design on the back of the bodice.

The gusset is a piece inset underneath the arm and connecting to the bodice; the fit is tight without it.

“The ruffle takes the longest. It’s the last piece I put on,” said Bendabout.

She uses chalk to measure and mark her fabric.

“I cut my own button holes,” she said.

Bendabout said creating a tear dress can take about three days, working eight hours each day.

The cost of the class is $100, with Bendabout providing the pattern, chalk, pins and scissors. Attendees bring their own sewing machine and fabric.

Sherry Garrett of Keys makes tear dresses for her granddaughters.

“They want to dance. I’ve made them skirts and tops; now I want to make the whole dress,” said Garrett. “And get more confidence.”

For Denise Griffin of Tahlequah, “it’s an opportunity to be part of a cultural tradition.”

It was her first time to make a tear dress, though she used to make all her own clothes.

“I want to make a tear dress I can wear to powwows,” Griffin said. “And I’ll come to the next class to learn how to make ribbon shirts for my husband and the men in the family.”

The women in the class discussed how few people sew anymore.

“I knew how good [Bendabout] is at making these garments - very experienced,” Berry said. “At the John Hair Museum and Cultural Center we want to continue the tradition and pass it on to provide opportunities to learn.”

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