of the textile group with the near-completed skirt and bison
in the background who also contributed wool to the project.
Since March of 2018, the Historic Preservation department staff
and tribal members have been working together to learn about Choctaw
textiles that go back thousands of years. Through this community
effort, we learned enough to create a completed an vlhkuna, a skirt,
modeled after a 1700s bison wool and plant fiber skirt. According
to an anonymous French chronicler writing in the mid-1700s, Choctaw
women made a fabric, partly of (bison) wool, and partly of
fibre from a very strong herb which they spun. This fabric was double
like two-sided handkerchiefs and thick as canvas, (about 22.5 inches
wide and 33.75 inches long).
The first step towards making the skirt was to use the 1700s description
to help us plan for the materials and steps in the project. We determined
how much yarn we needed, what size the skirt would need to be for
the model, what pattern we would use, and how we would use the bison
and plant materials together. We decided to use dogbane as our plant
material. While it appears to be a simple stick, dogbane is a widely
used native textile material in the Southeast and across North America.
In the end, we needed about 400 yards of dogbane yarn, 2-ply or
doubled. This likely took us about 450 stalks of processed dogbane.
As for the yvnvsh hishi, or bison wool, we needed 250 yards of 2-ply
or double yarn. This ended up taking only about a third of the wool
from one hide.
In order to get our materials for the project, we had to find these,
process them, and spin them. The dogbane came partly from the Nan
Awaya Heritage Farmstead in Antlers, Oklahoma and partly from the
Morton Arboretum in Naperville, Illinois. The dogbane from Illinois
was nearly twice the size of that in Oklahoma and would be more
like the size of the plant in our homeland where the soil would
allow for more growth.
Some of the dogbane sat out before and after harvesting on the
grass and was exposed to the weather. This helped break down the
bark and free the fiber for later use. Others we processed just
with our hands. All of this had to be separated from the inside
of the stalk and then arranged and spun into a single yarn. Then,
to make the yarn stronger, we doubled these yarns and spun them
together. For the bison hair, we used a blade to cut the hair from
half of a hide. The other half of the hide we removed the hair by
soaking the hide in water and wood ash for several weeks. This loosened
the hair and then we pulled the hair from the hide. The hair was
then washed and carded (brushed) and spun like the dogbane yarn.
Once we had enough yarn to start with, we set up the skirt to begin
the next step: twining. First, we measured out lengths of bison
yarn to form the vpi, warp, and then arranged the cut lengths onto
a dowel rod. This rod was hung from the ceiling or laid so the yarn
hung down freely. The skirt was then ready to be twined. In order
to twine, we took two long pieces of dogbane yarn and twisted them
together around each hanging bison yarn on the dowel rod. This process
is an older form of weaving and can be used to make clothing, bags,
shoes, and baskets. We twined two loose cloths the same size and
laid them side by side, joining them at the waistband. This was
based off the skirt description from the 1700s and gave the skirt
an airy and soft texture. The skirt finishing had looped edges and
a fringe at the hem with a long braid to tie it up.
finished skirt will be on display at the Choctaw Cultural
Center in 2020.
The best way to learn is to make. It is hard to understand just
how much hair is on a bison or how many dogbane stalks it takes
to produce a garment until you process them with your own hands.
The skirt is beautifully soft, warm, and drapes nicely. Many modern
spinners consider bison hair impossible to spin by itself. Bison
down is short and does not have as much grab as sheeps wool.
However, several of the group contributed to processing and spinning
bison yarn for the skirt. It takes practice and patience to learn
to spin this fiber, but the challenge is a testament to the imponna,
skill and knowledge, of the many Choctaw makers before us. We also
learned that dogbane is a fiber that does not handle friction well.
When having to redo some weaving, it was clear that the fiber grew
weaker. Again, women had to know their materials and their craft,
being sure not to make mistakes that would cost time and materials.
Making the bison-dogbane skirt was part of a larger project to
show the rich textile history in Choctaw lifeways for thousands
of years. Consider that each woman and community had their own spin
on each item they made and each item had to have been made by multiple
hands coming together on a project. Each item made was a unique
creation and innovation continues to be a part of that process today.
We learn, make, and use textiles as part of learning about our identity
and appreciating the incredible skill of our ancestors. See past
Iti Fabvssa articles at and community had their own spin on each
item they made and each item had to have been made by multiple hands
coming together on a project. Each item made was a unique creation
and innovation continues to be a part of that process today. We
learn, make, and use textiles as part of learning about our identity
and appreciating the incredible skill of our ancestors. See past
Iti Fabvssa articles at choctawnation.com/history-culture/history/iti-fabvssa
to read about other crafts and textiles that our ancestors passed
down to us. The Historic Preservation department has been coordinating
textile classes, presentations, and projects since 2018. This item
is just one of five twined skirts that will be on display in the
upcoming Chahta Nowvt Aya Cultural Center.
Contact Jennifer Byram at jbyram@choctawnation.
com or 1-800-522-6170 ext. 2512 for more information about Choctaw
textiles and how you can get involved.
Have you ever had a question about Choctaw traditional culture,
lifeways, or history, but not been able to find the answer? "Iti
Fabvssa", is a monthly column in the "Biskinik" (Choctaw
Nation newspaper), written by staff members of the Choctaw Nation
Historic Preservation Department, which answers questions from readers
about anything within these subject areas. Through this column we
ultimately hope to create a conversation through which, Choctaws
can increase our knowledge about the past, strengthen our Choctaw,
and develop a more informed and culturally grounded understanding
of where we are headed as a people in the future.