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A Story of Evolution: The Impact of the Sewing Machine in Native American Fashion

Native people have historically communicated identity through their clothing and continue to do so today. Before European contact, Indigenous people created clothing from plant and animal materials. Different communities and tribes had and still have distinct and meaningful designs. The arrival of Europeans in North America prompted a cross-cultural exchange with Native people that impacted fashion designs, materials, and tools. As time went on, Euro-American influence spread across the continent, and colonial ideologies like manifest destiny fostered assimilationist government policies. These policies led to the development of Indian boarding schools, which Native American children were forced to attend. Requiring children to wear European-style clothing was just one example of the numerous ways in which these schools deprived Native students of their Indigeneity.

Additionally, through these schools Native children were taught trades and skills with the goal of leading them to abandon Indigenous lifestyles and instead participate in the American cash economy. Young girls and women were taught homemaking and domestic skills, including the use of the sewing machine. Many of these women became skilled seamstresses and brought the trade to their home communities. During this time, commercially made fabrics also became more widely available to Native American communities. This combination of new skills and materials changed Native American fashion, and innovation skyrocketed. Today, Native people utilize the sewing machine to make a variety of clothing types that represent both traditional and contemporary aesthetics.

By looking at these twenty-one pieces from the SAR IARC permanent collection, we can understand how sewing machines have transformed the world of Native American fashion.


Curated by Sháńdíín (Hailee) Brown (Diné), 2020–2021 Anne Ray intern.                                                                                                                                                  Organized by the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research.


Through my weaving, I remember my ancestors. I am grateful for the legacy they have left me, and my hope is to see that this legacy continues to be appreciated and that future generations of Pueblo people will carry on this ancient tradition.

Louie García, Tiwa and Piro Pueblo weaver, 2012 Ronald and Susan Dubin fellow

Before Native people had access to the sewing machine and commercial fabrics, they made clothing by hand-sewing animal hides or weaving textiles from local plant or animal materials like cotton or wool. Weaving was, and to this day still is, an integral component of many Southwest Native American tribes like the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblos. Historically, woven pieces were often made for utilitarian fashion, serving as breechcloths (IAF.T93), kilts (IAF.T716), dresses (IAF.T633), ties (IAF.T591), shawls (IAF.T624), and blankets (IAF.T610). These items protected the wearers from the elements and kept them warm. Yet they also were spiritual pieces: linked to tribal theology, decorated with sacred designs, and identifying the wearer’s tribe and/or community.

This video features multiple weavers and their perspectives on the art form. 


Unknown artist. Breechcloth, 1800–1850. Cotton, wool, dyes. IAF.T93. Photo by Addison Doty.

Steve Northup 1968

Unknown artist. Shawl, 1880s. Wool and dyes. IAF.T624. Photo by Addison Doty.


Luther Denebe. Kilt, 1964. Cotton, wool, dyes. IAF.T716. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Chief’s blanket, 1865–1875. Wool and dyes. IAF.T610. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Dress, 1870–1875. Wool and dyes. IAF.T633. Photo by Addison Doty.

Steve Northup 1968

Unknown artist. Legging ties, before 1961. Cotton, wool, dyes. IAF.T591. Photo by Addison Doty.


I hypothesize that contemporary Native designers continue the long tradition of incorporating the new with the old, and, in effect, creatively carry on their cultural traditions. Whether they update native clothing styles of the 1800s, or Indianize contemporary fashion, these designers explore how modern cuts and materials can be blended with traditional cultural design concepts and symbols to create unique, expertly constructed, artistic, and highly-valued garments.​

Jessica Metcalfe, PhD, Turtle Mountain Chippewa scholar and 2008–2009 Harvey W. Branigar Jr. Native intern

The adaptation to the sewing machine within Native communities allowed for the blending of traditional and contemporary styles. Some traditional tribal clothing pieces are now regularly made with a sewing machine. The line between what is traditional and what is not is often blurred and can be dependent on the generation of tribal members. For example, IAF.M569 and IAF.M632 are what some Navajos would consider traditional Navajo regalia despite these pieces being made in more contemporary times with sewing machines and from commercial fabrics. The same sentiment is true for IAF.M525 and IAF.M587. To their respective communities, these items, which were both made from modern fabrics using a sewing machine, may be deemed traditional depending on which generation is asked. Nonetheless, the styles of both pieces are worn in traditional dances by both tribes. All of these pieces mix contemporary with traditional and demonstrate the cultural impact of the sewing machine in an era of assimilation.

Here is an in-depth analysis of the contemporary Native American fashion movement by Dr. Jessica Metcalfe.


Unknown maker. Jeans, in or before 1964. Cotton and metal. IAF.M562. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Pants, in or before 1964. Cotton. IAF.M542. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Skirt, in or before 1962. Cotton and dyes. IAF.M525. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Dress, in or before 1964. Cotton. IAF.M587. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Skirt, in or before 1964. Cotton and dyes. IAF.M569. Photo by Addison Doty.


Unknown artist. Shirt, in or before 1966. Cloth, velvet, and silver. IAF.M632. Photo by Addison Doty.


In a Native way, when you create something, it doesn’t really belong to you.

Teri Greeves, Kiowa bead worker, 2003 Eric and Barbara Dobkin fellow 

The sewing machine opened the door to hyperspeed innovation in Native American fashion. As Native communities embraced machine-sewn fashions, artists have evolved to customize garments with ease and timeliness. This allows for pieces to be of Western style but with Indigenous detail and adornment through embroidering, stitching, and beading. Furthermore, fashion designers and artists can customize pieces according to their tribal heritage. The makers of all of these pieces added their cultural art to a Western item of clothing, enhancing the design and adding the element of Indigeneity. For example, SAR.1982-16-6AB is a machine-sewn Western-styled vest and skirt with its cut and gingham fabric print, but Lucy Yepa Lowden (a multidisciplinary Jemez Pueblo artist) accented the vest opening with Jemez embroidery. Likewise, SAR.1985-16-1 is machine-sewn and of Western style, especially with the button-down opening and collar. Yet the unidentified artist adorned both the top and bottom with Zuni embroidery. Pueblo embroidery is a traditional practice that is used to decorate Pueblo textiles for ceremonial use. You can learn more about Pueblo embroidery at https://sarweb.org/embroidery/default.htm


This is a video of Teri Greeves further explaining her work in conversation with her sister, Keri Ataumbi, for their 2019 IARC Speaker Series conversation: “Kiowa-Proud, Sisters in Action.”


Unknown artist. Dress, c. 1936. Cotton and dyes. SAR.1985-16-1. Photo by Addison Doty.


Lucy Yepa Lowden. Vest and skirt, c. 1982. Cotton and dyes. SAR.1982-16-6AB. Photo by Addison Doty.


Marcus Amerman. Photograph, 2004. Paper. AVA.2006-1-1. Photo by Addison Doty.


Teri Greeves. Shoes, 2003. Cotton, rubber, beads, metal, thread, and ink. SAR.2003-16-1A-D. Photo by Addison Doty.


Couture fashion allows me to capture ideas predominantly influenced by the pottery culture and traditional dress of my Acoma people. . . . I continue to seek new ways to expand upon my creativity as a fashion designer while maintaining a connection to my Acoma Pueblo heritage.

Loren Aragon, Acoma Pueblo fashion designer, 2017 Ronald and Susan Dubin fellow

Loren Aragon (Acoma Pueblo) is one among a strong cohort of contemporary Native American fashion designers doing exceedingly well in the fashion industry. Aragon is a couture designer who integrates design elements from the artistic traditions of the Pueblo of Acoma. The IARC is privileged to care for one of his works, Cascade, which is machine sewn and made from silk, leather, and sterling silver. This work is from his 2018 Spring/Summer Emergence Collection, for which he was awarded the 2018 Couture Designer of the Year at Phoenix Fashion Week. The IARC also stewards couture pieces from another Pueblo designer, Juanita Lee (Kewa Pueblo). Lee, like many Native American women, was taught to sew with a machine at an Indian boarding school. She then went on to be further trained in draping and design at the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City. It is believed that the pantsuit was designed for a family wedding in the 1960s, which explains the combination of the its mod structure and Pueblo embroidery design. Both Aragon’s and Lee’s machine-sewn designs beautifully integrate Pueblo art styles in their couture work.

Here is Aragon speaking more about his couture label ACONAV.


Loren Aragon. Dress, 2017. Crepe, chiffon, organza, taffeta, leather, silver, turquoise, and metal. SAR.2018-3-1AB. Photo by Addison Doty.


Juanita (Crispin) Lee. Vest, 1960s. Cotton, wool, and dyes. SAR.2018-4-7. Photo by Addison Doty.


Juanita (Crispin) Lee. Pantsuit with handbag, 1960s. Cotton, wool, and dyes. SAR.2018-4-1A-C. Photo by Addison Doty.


Juanita (Crispin) Lee. Dress, 1960s. Cotton, wool, and dyes. SAR.2018-4-8AB. Photo by Addison Doty.


Juanita (Crispin) Lee. Shirt, 1960s. Cotton, wool, and dyes. SAR.2018-4-3. Photo by Addison Doty.


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