Man's Shirt, Nez Perce

A Nez Perce man's cured hide shirt decorated with quil work, Venetian glass beads, wool cloth, and fringe. The shirt was made circa 1820 and is part of the Spalding-Allen Collection.
Cultural Narrative: 

"The process [of making a shirt] really begins with the hunter. Because at this point in time, Nez Perce likely had firearms. And when we go out and hunt, we're always told that we should try to take neck shots. And what that does is that it avoids any lower body damage that would have resulted in bullet holes that would have complicated the hide tanning process.

When we go out and hunt, we try to take neck shots right at the base of the skull. Because then you leave the brains available. They're not disrupted to the point where you can't use them for hide tanning. Because the process is that you take the animal after you've killed it, you clean it up and you pull the hide off. You don't skin it off with a knife, because knives leave cut marks and hide that basically when you're working that hide and softening it, those cut marks can open up and be even bigger holes than bullet holes. So you avoid using a knife as much as possible. You use a knife to make these cuts up the front of the front legs to the base of the neck, and up the back of the back legs to the base of the tail. And then the skin that's on the inside of where the leg comes down, that gets pulled back on each side to the outside, this being the back. And then that hide gets stripped off one direction or the other. We typically go from the neck down and we pull it off. Because that way you've got no knife marks in it. And from that point, you scrape the flesh side of the hide to remove any bits of tendons that are attached to the muscles that allow that creature to kind of shake and twitch like that. And after that, it gets scraped off. You soak it and then you remove the hair and the outer layer of the grain. And that exposes that thin layer of the hide that's eventually going to result in the hide that you use for making a shirt or a dress.

So after that point you wring it out and then you drop it into a warm solution of brains where you take the brain from an elk will tan that elk's hide. The brain from a deer will be enough to tan that deer's hide. It's kind of that type of a ratio. And that, the animal's brain is full of oils that permeate the hide so after you've wrung all the brain matter out of it, you start to work it back and forth like that as it's drying. And if the temperature is right, it will slowly dry at a pace where you're working that back and forth like that and you're causing all those little hair fibers to get oil molecules in between it. And eventually it's dry and it's been worked as it's drying so that it renders this soft, supple kind of a material almost like felt." Joshaih Pinkham

Traditional Knowledge: 

And so the other thing is that it [the shirt] shows quill-wrapped fringe, which is what these yellow areas are here. Those are all porcupine quills. And the way that porcupine quills are dyed is after you get quills from a porcupine, what you can do is you can dye them using wolf moss, and that will get you that kind of a yellowish color." Josiah Pinkham