Native Americans made knife sheaths and storage containers from specially prepared rawhide referred to by the Europeans as "parfleche" (PAR-flesh). By using this kit, you will learn Indian techniques, including how to paint parfleche by using native tools and materials. The Deluxe Kit contains: pre-cut sheath shape of prepared parfleche rawhide, 4 colors of powder paint, powdered hide glue, wooden "paint brushes", red and blue wool felt, buckskin thong, a large needle, 7/16" low-dome brass tacks (25), sheath pattern, plus completely illustrated instructions.
Awl, small rag, 5 small bowls, assorted small stir sticks, scissors, pencil, electric drill, 3/16" and 1/2" bits, small ball peen hammer, wire snips
Please read all the instructions before beginning your sheath.
1. There were many styles of rawhide and hard leather sheaths used on the Plains in the 1800s. A good reference book for styles, decorations, construction techniques, and actual photos of museum specimens is Plains Indian Knife Sheaths by Alex Kozlov, published by Crazy Crow Trading Post. A sheath's style includes not only the general shape but the method of belt attachment. Following are some shape and attachment ideas:
With the pre-cut parfleche in this kit you can make any sheath in Fig. 1. First, decide which shape you like, as well as the method of attachment. Although the photo examples show holes for belt cut-outs, the cut-outs may be omitted if you use any of the attachment ideas in Fig. 2.
The painted designs will only be on one side. However, you can reverse any of the styles and make the mirror image of one of the shapes. This will let you wear the sheath on whichever side of your body that you choose. The sheaths in the photo, for example, could have been painted on their opposite sides, so that they would face the opposite direction from which they appear in the picture.
2. After choosing the style, method of attachment, and orientation of how the sheath will be worn, look carefully at the sheath patterns. (Figs. 3 & 4) Because of space limitations, we're only able to print 1/2 of each pattern. If you wish to use the sheath style of the pattern as-is, proceed to Step 3 at this time. Note the dotted line that is innermost from the edge of the pattern. This is where the brass tacks will be placed. You can make changes to the pattern to achieve the style you have chosen, so long as you do not cut away parfleche any closer than 1/4" to this inner line. Also, allow for the leather lacing - whether or not you use the wool binding - which will require an additional 1/2" on the sheath edge. The marks at 1/4" from the edge are for the lacing holes. (See Title Photo of 2 sheaths)
If desired, re-design the outside of the pattern to reflect the shape you have chosen, including any cut-out pattern for a belt. (Measure your belt before you design the cut-out.)
3. Use the half-pattern to trace a complete pattern on a larger sheet of paper. (either Fig. 3 or 4) Cut out the pattern and save the pieces you cut off. Align the pattern carefully over the SMOOTH side of the parfleche, then use a pencil to trace the pattern outline onto the parfleche. Also transfer the center positions from the top and bottom of the pattern.
Remove the pattern and connect the centerline. Next, lay the pattern on the rough side of the parfleche (this will be the outside of the sheath). Use an awl and pierce the pattern through the dots to transfer the tack positions onto the surface of the parfleche. You only need to make dents; do NOT completely pierce the parfleche.
If you are using the unaltered original pattern, also transfer the lacing hole dots along the outside edge of the pattern. Otherwise, cut out the parfleche using the revised pattern lines on the back.
4. If using an altered pattern, now retrieve the original cut off edge that has the marks for the lacing holes. Align this pattern edge as closely as possible with one side of your sheath so that the hole marks are 1/4" from the edge and start 1/4" from the top edge of the sheath. The last hole at the bottom should also be 1/4" from the center of the sheath; make adjustments if necessary. (Figs. 3 & 4) Use the awl to transfer the hole marks along one edge of the rawhide. (It is not necessary to mark the opposite side.)
If you're using a Method of Attachment that requires the use of holes in the sheath, mark the parfleche material at this time and make these holes. (See Section 17: "Making the Lacing Holes")
5. Wet a small rag with warm water, then wring most of it out. Lay it on the rough side of the parfleche along the center line and allow the sheath to soak for an hour or so. When the sheath is soft and flexible along the center, remove the rag. Carefully fold the sheath together so that the outer edges are in perfect alignment. Use small office supply clips or clothes pins to hold the edges in place. (Option: Place a heavy weight over the edges to hold them in place.) Do not press the center perfectly flat. Allow the sheath to dry overnight.
6. When dry, the design may be painted on the flesh side after a little more preparation. Use 220 grit (or finer) wet or dry Emery paper (or sandpaper) and lightly go over the flesh side, knocking off the little bumps as you go. Do not sand very hard, and just go over the surface once or twice. (Sanding very much will start to raise the grain of the hide, making it very fuzzy.) The resulting surface should be fairly smooth, although it is not likely to be perfect. RESIST the temptation to pull on the little pieces of tissue still sticking up.
7. Designs differed from tribe to tribe, and there were an unlimited number of them. If you wish to use a design other than the ones below (Fig. 5), use outside resources, such as books, museum specimens, on-line web sites, etc. Some of our designs are actually beadwork designs from old leather sheaths, in addition to painted parfleche designs. Unless you are very familiar with Indian knife sheath designs, do not make up your own design, as part of the fun of Indian crafts is to learn "how the Indians did it". Also, if you chose to bind the sheath edges with either the red or blue cloth, you must consider the cloth color also as a design element, so it is best to make the cloth color selection at this time. If using the wool binding, there will be no paint on the edge of the pattern, approximately 1/2" from the edge.
The design elements in our examples have various colors, and you can select these using Tribal Styles. (See the Inside Cover of the Crazy Crow catalog for information on Tribal Colors.) To see how each design will look before you actually paint it, re-draw the design to scale or enlarge our drawing on a scanner or copier. Then use colored pencils to color in the design elements.
8. Earth pigment paint was traditionally applied by a piece of bone fashioned into a "brush". An alternative to bone was a wood stylus (supplied with this kit). Both are easy to make, but the bone holds more paint. (Fig. 6)
The bone "brush" is actually a stylus made from a very porous section of bone. The end joints of long bones or pieces of rib are ideal. (Bones from any large animal will do.) To make a bone brush, cut off 2"-4" sections from thoroughly cleaned bones. Cook greasy bones for a short time in very hot water to remove the fat. (Do not boil.) Use a belt sander or large file to make a beveled end on the most porous part of the bone. This end may be ½" to 1" wide and should be 1/16" to 1/8" thick. (These dimensions are not critical.) Make at least one brush with a very thin edge to be used for design outlining
To make more wood brushes, cut a wooden dowel, such as a 6" long piece of dried, cured tree branch, about 3/8" - ½" in diameter. Remove the bark from the stick. Cut, sand, or whittle a long bevel (approximately 30 degrees) on one end of the stick. (Fig. 7) Make sure the tip has no rough edges. This is your finished brush. Since this "brush" is not especially porous, it will hold much less paint than the bone brush, and thereby requires frequent dipping.
This kit contains 5 wood brushes, one for each color of paint. A substitute for either the bone or wood brush is a stiff, short-haired artist's brush, available at hobby stores.
9. For mixing the paint, gather up 5 small containers, such as plastic dishes for margarine. Get another dish about twice this size for mixing the hide-glue.
10. The first step in mixing paint is to make liquid hide glue. In the largest container, begin adding a small amount (1/4 tsp.) of powdered hide glue to about a ½ cup of warm water and stir thoroughly. Experiment until you've added enough hide glue to make the mixture just a little syrupy, then thin this mixture with a little more warm water until watery, not syrupy. The solution should not be very sticky but also should not feel quite like plain water, being only very slightly sticky when felt with the fingers.
11. If you plan to paint the hide immediately after mixing the paint, start rehydrating the hide now (see Step 12) as you prepare the paint.
Only make a little paint solution at one time. A little paint goes a long way, and it is best to experiment at first while learning what works best. Different colors can be mixed together to obtain the exact shade desired. For example, a little black mixed with red will make dark brown used for outlines, while yellow mixed with blue makes green. A drop of black can be added to any color for a slightly darker shade.
NOTE: A common misconception is that the paint on parfleches should have a washed-out look. This comes from observing museum specimens whose colors have faded over time. While the paint should not be "electric", it should be reasonably saturated and bright.
Mixing paint with the liquid glue requires a little trial and error, so start with just one color of paint. In one of the small dishes, mix 1 part powdered pigment paint with 2 parts of the liquid hide glue.
Test this mixture on a dampened section of the parfleche (such is the lower inside of the sheath). If it sits on top of the parfleche and doesn't soak in, then thin the mixture with a little more of the glue solution. If it soaks in and bleeds, then thicken the mixture with more powder paint. The ideal paint mixture will soak into the perfleche with no bleeding.
12. The front side of the sheath must now be lightly hydrated (moisturized). Remove the clamps and take a clean rag and wet it with warm water. Wring out about ¾ of the water, then lay the rag over the entire surface of the sheath. Allow this to soak in for about 15 minutes.
Remove the rag and wipe the hide down with a dry cloth. Wipe all in one direction, the same as before. The moisture may have caused little knaps of tissue to raise up, but wiping down will put them back in place, and they will eventually dry back into the surface.
13. The first step in painting the design is to do the outlining, if outlining is part of the design. (Some tribes typically do not outline their designs. Outlining is done with a very fine line, usually in either black or brown, but sometimes other colors are used. Use the wood stylus and the appropriate paint color to practice making fine lines on the damp inside surface of your sheath. To avoid splotches, use very little paint on the brush/stylus. This is slow work and requires a steady hand. Do NOT first draw lines with a pencil and ruler, as the pencil lines will show through, and the finished piece will not look "Indian". (Indians didn't have rulers.) Tip: Make a tiny pencil dot at the start and end of a line, then use free-hand with the paint brush to connect the dots. Remember, this work is not supposed to look "perfect".
Begin outlining. (It's easier to begin in the middle and work out.) As you apply the paint with the wood brush, press the point into the rawhide with a little pressure. This helps the paint to penetrate more deeply. After you've outlined about half of the design, begin filling in the designs (Step 14). The idea is to outline and complete portions so that your paint brush hand is not placed on previously painted areas.
14. If the hide is still damp after you complete the outlining, you can begin to fill in the designs. If the hide has dried out, get a clean cloth and wet it with warm water. Wring out all the water, then CAREFULLY lay it over the painted area so as to not rub and smear the paint. After 15 minutes or so, carefully lift off the cloth. If the hide is damp to the touch, begin to paint.
Note that, in old parfleches, the different paint colors generally do not touch. In a triangle design, for example, the outline is first painted. Then the fill color is added to the inside of the triangle, but it only comes close to - but does not touch -the triangle outline. This prevents color bleeding. (Fig. 8) Remember to rub the paint into the hide during its application.
15. After the front of the sheath is painted, the next step is to apply the sizing. The use of "sizing" (also called fixative) is the same as applying a thin, clear varnish over a finished modern painting on canvas. This step also requires a damp surface. If the entire painted area or any part of it has dried, it should be lightly rehydrated. Again, take a damp (not wet) rag and lay it gently over the hide, and allow the hide to absorb some of the moisture for just a few minutes. The idea is to make the hide damp but not so wet that the paint will smear when you apply fixative over the paint.
When damp, the surface should be gently coated with a light layer of thinned hide glue. Mix some hide glue and warm water so that the solution is a little thicker than the paint and hide mixture used earlier, but it should still be thin enough so that it flows on easily. Practice on a piece of damp cardboard until you get a satisfactory solution mixture. Apply it to the sheath by using a very soft brush (such as the foam brushes from paint stores used for stain or varnish) or a soft, clean rag. Use long, gentle strokes, and do not go back over your work (to avoid smearing the paint).
Allow to dry. If desired, a second coat of fixative can be applied over the first. The hide does not have to be re-dampened for this second coat. But, again, use long strokes and do not go back over the work.
OPTION: Instead of using hide glue fixative, painted parfleche may be coated with a dull finish spray varnish or artist's fixative. This works quite well in humid parts of the country where traditional sizings can remain tacky for some time after application. Although the use of commercial products is not traditional, it does give satisfactory results.
NOTE: Some parfleche makers actually coat the entire parfleche surface with fixative BEFORE they apply the painted designs, then apply another coat of fixative over the design. You may wish to experiment with this variation in technique to see if you prefer the final "look" of the design work. This will also reduce any tendency for the paint to bleed as it is applied.
Also, when you are finished with the paint and fixative, allow them to dry in their dishes. Simply add warm water later to re-use them.
After sizing, clamp the sheath edges together and allow it to dry several hours.
16. When completely dry, look at the dents you made earlier when transferring the tack positions. If you cannot see some of them, use the pattern to re-transfer those points. It will be helpful to put a small pencil mark in the dent itself, to aid in seeing the dents.
Drill a large hole (such as 1/2") in a scrap of wood. This will come in handy for driving the tacks. Starting at the top of the folded sheath, place it face side up with the first tack mark positioned over the hole in the wood. Now drive the first brass tack all the way through the sheath.
Next, turn the sheath over and get your wire snips. (Fig. 9) Loosely position the jaws of the snips around the steel shank and press the snips down hard against the leather before cutting off the shank. You can press with one hand and cut with the other.
A small burr of the shank will be left, extending just above the surface of the sheath. (Fig. 10) Place the sheath with the tack head on a hard metal surface, such as the anvil plate on the back of a bench vise. Then use the rounded head of a ball peen hammer to start mushrooming out the burr of the shank. (Fig. 11) Hammer very lightly but many times. Hammering hard will drive the shank through the head of the tack, or it may bend the shank; neither is desirable. As you hammer, aim for the shank center with each stroke, and the burr will start to mushroom. (Fig. 12) Continue hammering by aiming all around the edges of the mushroom, and this will even it out. Occasionally feel the shank end, then hammer where you need to so that the mushroomed edge is snug against the parfleche. You want the finished end to be smooth, i.e., to not stick out or have rough edges which will snag on clothing. (Fig. 13)
Continue hammering and mushrooming the tacks until you finish all 22 tacks
17. Holes are required for lacing the sides together. Ideally, holes should be burned. Burning seals the hole edges and helps prevent lacing from tearing the hole. Small, commercial soldering irons with pointed tips work well for this and are available in hobby shops or hardware stores. Or you may use a heated nail held with a pair of pliers or vise grips. An option to burning is to drill the holes.
Note: the pencil marks you made along the sheath edge for lacing holes. The hole at the sheath's tip should be at least 1/4" back from the center fold; adjust it if necessary.
Again use clamps to hold the sheath edges in perfect alignment, then burn or drill 3/16" holes through the marks completely through both layers of the sheath; adjust the clamps as necessary as you proceed along the edge.
18. The leather thong included with this kit is for lacing. You can lace the edge with or without the trade cloth. If you plan to use either the red or blue cloth, get it at this time. The cloth is longer then the length of the sheath edge. Do not cut it. Instead, fold it lengthwise and iron it flat. (Wear a glove if using a steam iron.)
A. Clamp the sheath edges into the finished position with careful alignment of the front and back lacing holes.
B. Tie an overhand knot in one end of the thong. Cut a point on the other end, then wet and twist it into a hard point. (If you are not successful with lacing by pushing the thong end through the holes, you can thread it through the large lacing needle included with the kit.)
C. Position one end of the trade cloth at the top front of the sheath so that it evenly overlaps both the front and the back. (Fig. 14). With an awl tip, feel through the wool from the back for the first hole, then push the awl through the hole. It will help to stretch the tradecloth across the hole with your left hand while pushing the awl with your right. From the back side, lace the pointed end through the hole. (If using the needle, grab the needle with a pair of pliers to pull the needle all the way through.)
D. Repeat whichever process you use and lace the thong in whipstitch fashion until you reach the NEXT TO THE LAST hole. (The last hole is for the thong and bead dangle.) After coming through this hole but before pulling it tight, work the lace around to the back of the sheath and underneath the last stitch you made. Now pull the lace tight and tie an overhand knot on the back side of the sheath. Use the awl to work the remaining end under the next to the last lace, pull it tight, then cut off the excess lace end. (Fig. 15)
The end of the trade wool extends past the end of the sheath. Cut it off even with the folded edge of the sheath. Then take your remaining leather thong and see if you can slide the brass beads up over the DOUBLED lace. If the lace is too thick for the beads, carefully cut the thong into a thinner strip or use a different piece of lace. Now lace the thong half way through the wool and this last hole. Snug up the brass beads as in Fig. 15.
19. Chances are that the sheath is too snug to accept your knife, but there's an easy solution so that the knife will fit perfectly. Lay the sheath with the painted side on the work table, then lay a small wet cloth on the back of the sheath on the section where the knife handle will be. Check the sheath in a couple of hours. When the leather in this area is fairly soft and pliable, wrap your knife in plastic wrap and insert it into the sheath. (The wrapping protects the blade from rusting.) Allow the sheath to dry, and your knife should now fit snugly.
We hope that you had fun making your Parfleche Knife Sheath. If you'd like to do more, Crazy Crow also has a Parfleche Envelope Kit, Product No. 4832-011-001. It uses the same techniques that you learned with this sheath kit. This Envelope kit can be ordered with or without earth pigment paints and supplies.
For written resources on American Indian Knife Sheaths " Parfleches, see:
Plains Indian Knife Sheaths -Alex Kozlov. Published by Crazy Crow Trading Post, 2006. CCTP Product No. 4105-058-900
Indian Rawhide: An American Folk Art by Mable Morrow, re-printed by Crazy Crow Trading Post 2007. CCTP Order No. 4107-005-900
The American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting by Gaylord Torrence, Univeristy of Washington Press in association with the Des Moines Art Center. 1994. ISBN 0-205-07333-1. (Out of print. See used book dealers.)