Native American Skin Shirt 

State Museum of Pennsylvania

HISTORIC OVERVIEW

After Treatment: Native American Skin Shirt (front)The shirt, fashioned in the poncho style, is made from two brain tanned skins believed to be either deer or big horn sheep. It is trimmed with tufts of horse hair wrapped with porcupine quills and pony bead panels or strips, sewn along the upper surface of and over the shoulders. A blue and red wool flap hangs from the neck on the back of the shirt. In 1833, German Prince Maximilian of Wied described this type of shirt and specifically mentions these “cloth flaps” as hanging down “both before and behind”. Holes from stitches are found at the front of the neck opening but the textile panel is missing in this area. In the mid 19th century, these shirts attributed to the Lakota and/or Cheyenne, were presented to promising young men by tribal leadership as a sign of honor. A very similar shirt is currently being exhibited at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

 

PRE-TREATMENT CONDITION

Before Treatment: Native American Skin Shirt (front)The two hide Lakota / Cheyenne shirt was part of a long term exhibit entitled the “Culture Areas of North America” being up-graded by the State Museum of Pennsylvania. The shirt was examined and found to be in unstable condition. The skin had been heavily oiled and disfigured by a yet to be identified leather dressing or consolidant which had caused the leather to become stiff and brittle in some areas. The same coating had significantly darkened, obscuring the yellow pigment used to decorate the shirt. The shirt had several tears, one of which appears to have been sewn with sinew and believed to be a native repair. Several cloth patches had been added to the interior surfaces of the leather in an attempt to stabilize tears and areas of loss. Several sections of the beaded panels were missing from the proper left shoulder and sections of pony beads were loose overall. The shirt was badly distorted by uneven shrinkage of the skin; most notably the rear panel which appears to be nearly six inches shorter on the proper left side and bottom edge. It is believed that a red and blue wool panel, similar to that found on the rear of the shirt, is missing from the front; stitching holes are found at the neck where this panel would have been attached.

 

TREATMENT

After Treatment: Native American Skin Shirt (back)FTIR was used to identify the darkened oil coating but the analysis proved inconclusive. The yellow pigment was identified as yellow ochre, a natural occurring earth pigment. Solvent testing using petroleum distillates proved effective at reducing the darkened leather dressing and cleaning of the leather proceeded using a vacuum suction table. Controlled humidification, after cleaning, allowed for limited reshaping of the distorted and shrunken leather. The glass beads were stabilized and loose porcupine quills which secured the horsehair bundles were wrapped with thin strips of TYVEK, and adhered with a reversible solvent based adhesive. Beaded panels were created using a slightly larger glass bead sewn with cotton thread to cotton to “to fill losses” on the original beaded decoration; the replicated beaded sections were secured using polyester thread sutures. A padded internal mount was fabricated using polyethylene foam and linen. The mount was constructed with an integral exhibition stand.