Grand Portage Treasure... Re-creating The Hiawatha Dress
My family is originally from Grand Portage, Minnesota. In the search for my Mother's Grandmother, I came across this collection of paintings by Eastman Johnson, painted in Grand Portage around 1856. He was most famous for his rendition of "Hiawatha", a painting he painted with the use of Grand Portage regalia created for this purpose by local women.
It occured to me that I am descended from a long line of expert hand seamstresses, and the woman who created the dress may very well have been my relation. I was also intrigued with the design of this garment, how did the sleeves work? Were they useful, or just ornamentation? The paintings seem to depict a usefulness, one even showing a family paddling a canoe with the sleeves on. These were more than just ornamentation, to be set aside at worktime, as has been suggested.
I then found that the garment used in the painting was currently in storage at the Depot in Duluth, just an hour or so from my home so I made an appointment with the curator to photograph. and measure the "Strap Dress" depicted in the painting. After examining the garment I decided to recreate the dress myself, to see what this dress really looked like and how it was worn to honor my Grandmother.I used an army blanket as my "mock-up" as the material used by natives at this time was imported "Stroud" or "list" cloth from England. Re-created "stroud" wool costs more than $75.00 a half yard.
The army blanket was much thicker so the plans did have to be slightly altered, but I am very pleased with the results.
I am wrapped in a 1 1/2 point Hudson Bay matchcoat in Hudson Bay colors of Red & Black. The white blankets shown in the painting represent the American Fur Company, which took over from Hudson's Bay around this time.
I later created the blue wool dress shown above that more closely resembles the historic garment. I am still working on the beadwork for this garment and hope to have it finished soon. My proudest moment was wearing it to the Grand Portage Powwow in 2006, and showing it to my Grandmother Lorraine.
My latest project is to recreate the leather strap dress I discovered in the Chicago Field History Museum as well as the create the dress that my good friend Mia let me borrow and make a patten from.