Special Note: This wool tradecloth history article is “UNDER CONSTRUCTION”. The narrative is complete, but there are over 200 images being worked into this article and into a separate photo gallery. Check back to see how it’s coming. If you’re interested in the history of tradecloth, and a demonstration of both its historical and contemporary use, you won’t want to miss it!
This is an enhancement of the original presentation at the Material Culture of the Plains, Prairie and Plateau Conference (MCPPP), National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, October 16-18, 2008. It is an attempt to show examples of the various types of trade cloth and their use by American Indian people over time.
Red 8-Band Embroidered Blanket
The History of Tradecloth project began with a few scraps of cloth assembled by Tom Parker and placed on a single display board with minimal documentation. This was used for educational purposes for those few people actually interested in the subject. It has since blossomed into four triple boards and now, this presentation.
The examples offered here are seemingly heavy in what is called “rainbow selvage cloth”, an appropriate name for the multi-colored banded selvage edges found on this finely woven product. Collectors have seemingly shunned many stunning items made using this type of cloth. Rainbow cloth is viewed as far too modern and 20th century. However, it was produced in the mid-18th century and reached its pinnacle between 1880 and the 1920’s. It became a standard of quality and status demanded by and traded to numerous Prairie tribes, particularly the Osage, their cognates, and their neighbors.
Osage Man’s Red and Blue Blanket
The late Norman Feder once estimated there were probably at least 40 distinct rainbow edges. We have collected and documented examples of most of those, a few of which are shown in this presentation.
Though trade cloth was brought to America by Spanish, French and English traders, the English woolen industry appears to be the prevailing source . Examination of numerous trade manifests indicate a wide variety of cloth products but rarely can one locate with any accuracy a specific description of the selvage edge. The earliest actual examples are edge specimens dating to the early to mid-18th century in the Anders Berch collection, Nordiska Musett, Stockholm, Sweden.
Later, we find correspondence references between cloth purveyors and manufacturers explicitly indicating the “desired” type of cloth demanded by the Indian consumers. Specifically ,this was a woolen cloth in scarlet and indigo with a white or undyed selvage edge or stripe now referred to as “saved list cloth”. It was also produced in green, yellow and purple with the latter being phased out due to lack of demand. One located specimen shows it was also produced in black. The edge was an apparent indicator of quality goods and native consumer tastes rapidly demanded quality.
Though produced with a “rainbow banded edge” in the 18th century, actual examples become evident in museum collections or at least paintings in the mid-19th century and reaching peak demand between roughly 1870 and 1930 and continuing to the present day. This increased use was partially fueled by Osage demand for quality. Once oil was discovered on Osage land in Indian Territory they became the richest people in the world and settled for nothing less than the best. In other areas and at an earlier date native peoples controlled large natural deposits of lead, copper and later coal and uranium but none of these equaled the Osage Oil resources. Thus there was a great rush to fill the demand for extremely fine quality cloth for the Osage and their neighbors.
Tradecloth Manufactured by Crazy Crow
Osage sources suggest the early 20th century cloth was manufactured in France. At least to the Osage the color banded selvage was an indicator of fine quality goods. These colored bands not only served as a decorative feature but as an indicator of both wealth and status to be openly displayed and to be given away as gifts to visitors from neighboring tribes.
Even today fine examples of “old” blankets, skirts and traditional dance clothing with the prominent colored edge are displayed as a matter of pride. Though trunks containing these cherished examples may only be opened once or twice a year and their contents used during the traditional June I’n lonshka at Grayhorse, Hominy and Pawhuska Districts, it is a visual feast to behold these proudly worn family heirlooms.
The demand for colored edge cloth continues and reproduction to meet this demand has been attempted by several purveyors since about 1960. However, the feel , texture and tight weave of the old cloth cannot be produced by modern methods, at least not in any sustained quantity, without investing a large amount of money for production. In mill terms, a “piece of cloth” is generally 62 to 65 yards in length and a mill will not set up operation to produce just one piece or even less than ten pieces due to the operational cost. One purveyor solved that problem by purchasing his own small mill. Another has cloth being produced in Europe and elsewhere but again in limited quantity. Fine quality cloth is still manufactured in England but it is manufactured for tennis ball and billiard table coverings. Fine uniform cloth and suiting is also manufactured there but without the rainbow edge. It is the colored banded selvage edge and fine texture that is important……as it has always been.