Appropriation of woollen tradecloth by native peoples

The indigenous communities trading with the Hudson’s Bay Company and the East India Company adapted the cloth and integrated it into their own traditions of material culture.

Large pieces of cloth were used to make clothing, such as the ‘Stroud’ strap dress seen in the case downstairs. For many American Indian communities the cloth replaced animal hides which took a long time to clean and prepare for use in clothing. The cloth was ready to use and easier to sew. As the cloth was dyed it provided a colourful ground for decoration. Smaller pieces of cloth were used as decoration on hide or textile objects, such as the broad red cloth tassels on the Burmese bag or the cloth panels and cuffs on North American moccasins.

The cloth also provided a surface for further decoration with beads, quillwork or appliquéd slk ribbons. The striped or ‘saved list’ selvedges of the tradecloth were used as a decorative element by many North American peoples who were particular about the characteristics of the cloth they wanted. In 1714 James Logan, a Quaker scholar and merchant in Pennsylvania, wrote to England for cloth:

‘ “1st Strowd water a cloth about 4d broad about 4/ p yd blue or red in purchasing wch a regard must be had not only to the Cloth and Colour but also to the list about wch the Indians are Curious” [i.e. exacting].’1

Tradecloth was also used to decorate a wide variety of non-clothing items, including quirts and weapons. The cloth could also be unravelled to form yarn tassels such as those seen on the snowshoes. Careful examination of the tassels shows that a piece of cloth was inserted into the binding and then the ends unravelled. Navajo blankets of the US Southwest sometimes incorporated strongly coloured yarn unravelled from ‘bayeta’, a wool cloth brought by the Spanish.

The strong colour of the tradecloth also made it desirable as a dye source. The feathers on Crowfoot’s shirt are said to be dyed with colour from tradecloth and there are reports of the Navajo using tradecloth to dye their own yarns.

1 Kidd KE. 1961. The cloth trade and the Indians of the Northeast during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Royal Ontario Museum, Division of Art and Archaeology Annual. Toronto: Royal Ontario Museum: 48-56.