When you go through The Eugene and Clare Thaw Gallery of American Indian Art or the open-storage Study Center the next time you visit Fenimore Art Museum, look for the intricate small objects made of birchbark and embroidered with moosehair. If you didn’t read the material section of the object label would you guess that the embroidery floss is made of moosehair? I had no inkling of this amazingly creative use of animal hair until I started to study Native American art.
Moosehair also was used by Native people prior to European contact to decorate objects but Native artists did not embroider directly onto birchbark. Prior to the use of birch bark to make decorative items Native people used it for canoes, wigwams, baskets, and more.
French nuns brought European embroidery traditions with them to the new world and started using moosehair as embroidery floss on birch bark in the beginning of the 18th century. The convents had little access to supplies and goods (imported silk treads etc.), and turned to local converted Native people and their natural resources for new materials.
The Native phase of creation of these wares began in the early 1800s. The mid 1800s saw a major turning point in the art of moosehair embroidery as tourism and the popularity of Native-made art purchased as souvenirs increased. Women embroidered many different types of objects with moosehair, creating wonderful masterpieces; boxes, scissor cases, needle cases, spectacle cases, card cases, cigar cases, purses, trays, fan handles, screen fans, pictures, decorative panels pincushion, photo frames, blotters and notecases. Ruth Phillips in her book Trading Identities wrote that “The origin of these wares was a true contact zone event that fused the technological knowledge of Aboriginal peoples with the entrepreneurship of the Quebec Nuns.”
The most common types of decoration are either local village scenes or everyday occurrences and include people, animals and plants.
This tray is embroidered with animal as well as human figures. The many scenes speak of life around the village. The woman on the left, smoking a pipe, may be going to the market with baskets she made for sale.
This small card case shows that the birchbark was first covered with red trade cloth and then a beautiful spay of moosehair flowers were embroidered on both sides of the case.
The short length of the moose-hair, only about 9-12 centimeters, makes only a few insertions possible for each hair. Natural dyes from roots, as well as aniline dyes, were used. The hair was pulled from the mane, rump, and neck of the moose because that is where the hair is the longest. The moose’s fall and winter coats provided longer and better quality hair.
The loose ends of hair on the reverse were always hidden by a second layer of birch-bark. The two panels, the decorated panel and the lining panel, were joined together and edged with strands of un-dyed white moose-hair laid along the edges and over-sewn with stitches of contrasting dark commercial thread.