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“Cross” or “sacred fire”, “arrow”, “zigzag”, “bird”, “wave”, “mountains” and “diamondback rattlesnake” all have something in common. What do all of these names have in common? They are all names of Seminole patchwork designs. What exactly is patchworking? It can be defined as the process of sewing pieces of solid colored cloth together to make long rows of designs, which are then joined horizontally to other bands of cloth to form a garment (Downs, 1995, 88). This Native American artwork is closely associated with the Florida Seminoles. The history of this tribe and how they came to make patchwork garments is rather interesting. In making patchwork garments, things to be considered include how it is done (process), what elements of design are used, whom the garment is to be made for and who actually makes it. Presently, there are less artists in this craft and the future of patchwork may be at risk. Seminole patchwork has been done for over a century, and it’s beauty and uniqueness needs to be revealed and recognized by Americans.
The Seminole Indians were not always located in Florida. In the early 19th Century the Seminoles lived in the cool areas of Georgia. They wore animals hides and furs to keep warm. This all changed in 1830, when President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Policy of 1830, which forced the Seminoles to flee to Florida. In fleeing to Florida they left behind their homes, some relatives who refused to leave and their cool climate. In Florida, there was no longer a need for the warm furs and hides and they turned to the use of cloth. In 1840, they disappeared into the Everglades and lived there in peace, with no influences from other tribes. The Everglades were rich with exotic items that were worth a lot in trade markets. Once a year, the Seminoles would take a voyage on the Miami River to Miami. In Miami they could trade items such as alligator hides and egret plumes for rolls of cotton cloth. The Seminoles would use the cotton to make various pieces of clothing. One year, a voyage could not be made to Miami to attain more cloth and the Seminoles were forced to use scraps of cloth, sewing them together to make a large piece of cloth or garment.
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A Seminole patchwork requires the maker to take/cut many pieces of clothe and then sew them together. The process of sewing, cutting, sewing and so on results in the making of complex geometric designs. There is a six-step process that illustrates how patchwork is done. This process is that of Nea Dodson, a modern day patchwork artist. The pattern is very simple, but is one that is good to get your feet wet in patchmaking. This process is the same used by the original Seminoles.
1.) Cut scraps into equal sized squares, making sure to be accurate.
2.) Next, cut a neutral fabric into long strips, which are as wide as the scrap
3.) Sew the scrap squares between two strips of neutral fabric, like this.
4.) Cut strips apart so you now have a rectangle made of three squares: a square of
neutral, a scrap square and another square of neutral. It is important that the
edges are straight and the two neutral sides are even.
5.) Shift one rectangle down so that the top edge of the uppermost neutral square on the
right is even with the top edge of the scrap square on the left. Sew the rectangles
together. Keep adding rectangles in this manner. You will get a strip that looks
6.) Keep adding rectangles until you have a strip as long as you want. Turn the strip
so that the scrap squares are all on point (standing on one corner). Trim the upper
and lower corners off the neutral squares (see the dotted line in the first picture).
The resulting piece of patchwork should look like this:
Being a woman herself, Nea Dodson must know what it was like for the women of the Seminole tribe. All that cutting and hand sewing must have been very tedious. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that the hand operated sewing machine made its debut into Seminole villages. This made the process much easier and patchwork soon flourished. The sewing machine could do more tasks and incorporate more features into Seminole clothing. Around 1900, women were putting “built in” belts into men’s shirts. (Blackard and West) Then around 1920, the Seminole women began to put bands of contrasting colors into their clothing. A Seminole named Judy Bill Osceola remarks: “There wasn’t any designs then, there was just pieces of cloth . . . When they put all of the pieces together, they saw it was colorful and that was that (Downs, 1995, 89).” Design plays important part in the making of any craft or piece of artwork. The elements of design in patchworking can be easily seen.
There are four predominant elements of design found in patchwork garments. These four elements are color, texture, rhythm (motion) and pattern. Color is very important because it brings attention to the garments. Bright pieces of fabric are used in patchwork clothing, giving life and spirit to the wearer. Colors were sometimes a bit contrasting in that a bright warm color may be put into a predominately cool colored garment. This contrast brought attention to certain designs and patterns. Next, the texture of patchwork garments started out just having a plain, nappy cotton look, but once satin began to be used, the texture had a smooth, shimmery look. The texture of these garments lies heavily in the material used. The rhythm or motion of the patchworks is very important. All patchwork garments are made so that the bands of patterns are horizontal. These bands wrap all the way around giving the garment a circular, flowing motion. Though color, texture and rhythm are important, the biggest element in patchworking is pattern. Every garment is made with a special pattern that has either a religious, family, historical or everyday life significance. These patterns were first given names by a white woman named Harriet Bedell, who was an Indian Arts Activist. She encouraged the Seminole women to give the patchwork patterns names to facilitate their growth in the business market. The first two patchwork patterns documented through photographs were bold and basic. They were the “rain” and “fire” patterns as seen in source one. Another popular pattern made around the same time was one that looked like a checkerboard and named “rain and storm” (source two). As time moved on, the development of patterns augmented. The pattern “rain” was no longer just vertical stripes; it was now comprised of horizontal stripes (source three). Another development in patterns was that certain family units had special representational patterns such as
the “bear”, “snake”, “panther”, “crawdad”, “toad”, “turtle”, “bird”, “deer” and so on (source four). Along with “fire” and “rain” patterns, other everyday life patterns were just as common. Some example of these are “lightening bolts”, “crosses”, “spools”, “arrow”, “mountains”, “trees”, “wave” and “storm” (source five). Any of these patterns could be put into any one garment. As shown in source six, the women’s skirt has patterns such as “fire”, “tree” and “rain and storm” incorporated into its design. Both women and men’s garments looked the same, but each had their own distinctions (Downs, 1995, 90-108).
All of the patterns mentioned before and then some can be found in all Seminole clothing. No pattern was gender specific. Women’s attire consisted of a skirt, blouse and jewelry. The skirt was a very full, floor-length skirt. At knee level there was a ruffle and the whole skirt gathered around the woman’s waist. The blouse worn was long sleeved, with an attached cape that could be closed to cover the extremely short blouse. The actual blouse was so short that it would barely cover the woman’s chest and left a few inches of her midriff showing. In old photographs, like the one in source seven, women were always photographed with their arms crossed in front of their midriff gap, giving the photo a sense of decency. Then to top the outfit off, they would wear 10-15 pounds of glass beads. All of the garments were made of patchwork of course, but is thought that Mrs. Alice William McKinely Osceola was the first woman to wear a row of patchwork on her dress (source eight). A row of “fire” adorned her cape. Also you can clearly see the 10-15 pounds of glass beads around her neck (Blackard and West).
The man’s attire was a little less complex than that of the woman’s. Men wore a simple full cut shirt and either a short skirt or pants, depending on what Seminole tribe you look at. A very popular garment for men was the “big shirt”, which had a gathered waistband at the knees. The “big shirt” also known as the “long shirt”, came to be known as the “medicine man’s coat”. Only those of special rank or stature then wore them. Originally this was not the case, all men owned one and it had no affiliation tied to it (Blackward and West). Later into the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, a patchwork jacket gathered at the waist and wrist was quite popular. In source nine you can see present day Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, James E. Billie wearing a patchwork jacket (Westermark -Bad Horses). James E. Billie is not the only present day Seminole to wear traditional patchwork garments, but the number of Seminoles who do not uphold the tradition of patchwork outweighs those who do.
Seminole patchwork in the 90’s has been somewhat disappointing. There was once a time when the art of sewing was the most important event in a young girl’s life and their mother, aunt, grandmother or other family member still loved to keep the tradition alive. Present day Seminole women have moved into the job market and do not have time to make the patchworks by hand. Instead they buy rolls of pre-made patchwork or already assembled outfits. Thus the history and tradition of patchworking slowly fades away with each passing year. Fortunately those like Effie Osceola, Irene Cypress and Pauline Doctor have taken the time to create new complex patterns and keep the old way of making patchwork garments alive in the 1990’s. In source ten, eleven and twelve, you can see the work of Effie, Irene and Pauline respectively. It is easy to see the complexity of the patterns in comparison to those of early day patterns such as “fire” and “rain”. In source ten and twelve the use of metallic material is used giving the garments a flashier more modern day look, but at the same time retaining the orginial process of making patchworks (Downs, 1995, 115-117).
In 1995-1996, Lee Tiger, a Public Relations Executive, held a Seminole patchwork exhibition in Berlin, Germany. This exhibition showcased the works of Seminole patchwork throughout time. Showing the progression from around the 1900’s to now. This exhibition was held to create awareness of Seminole patchworks, but what exactly does the future hold for Seminole patchwork? (Westermark –Bad Horses) This question is a good one, because present day Seminoles do not have an answer to this question. The women who know how to sew patchwork together are becoming rather old and they are losing eyesight and memory on how to do it. Seminole women in their forties or younger seem to not have an interest in making patchworks anymore. “They recognize its importance not only as a mark of tribal identity but as a tangible link to their cultural heritage”, (Downs, 1995, 118). Steps are being taken to keep the tradition alive. Schools are now teaching young girls how to sew and make patchworks, and cultural programs are being brought into several tribes to teach the same thing. These efforts should bring a new awareness to their heritage and Seminole patchwork will again thrive throughout the tribes. (Downs, 1995, 118-119)
In a sense, it was beneficial for the Seminole Indians to be forced into Florida. If they were to remain in the cool regions of Georgia, then they might have worn furs and hides forever. Instead they were forced to make clothing out of cotton scraps and thus started a tradition known as patchwork. The Seminole’s history was very vital to their heritage. When making these patchworks garments, things that were taken into consideration were the process, elements of design, who wears them and who makes them. The future of Seminoles may be at risk, but efforts through education and public relations hopefully will stop absolution of patchwork. Seminole patchwork has been done for over a century, and it’s beauty and uniqueness has been and further needs to be revealed and recognized by Americans. “Patchwork has done more than just identify the people of the Seminole tribes: it has reflected their pride in their Indian heritage (Downs, 1995, 119).”
Blackard, David M. and West, Patsy. “Seminole Clothing: Colorful Patchwork.” (9 Dec. 1999)
Dodson, Nea. “Seminole Patchwork.”
Downs, Dorothy. Art of The Florida Seminole and Miccosukee Indians.
University Press of Florida, 1995. (pages 83-119)
Westermark- Many Bad Horses, Victoria. “Seminole Patchwork.” (9 Dec. 1999)