Indian Ribbon Dresses for the Powwow

During my “off season” of opera sewing (summer), I work on paid commissions, which range from basic necessities to uncharacteristic requests. In the summer of 2021, I was approached by my dear friend, Faith, and her mother to make three Indian ribbon dresses for Faith’s daughters, Hope and Ruby, and their cousin, Grace. The Native American heritage is an important aspect of Faith’s family and I was happy to do it ─ starting next summer. My schedule was booked for the season and my soonest available start time would be June 2022. Keeping that promise, I set my course for uncharted territory once Lucia wrapped in late May.

Indian Ribbon Dresses

When trying to envision how the dresses would look, I didn’t have a clue and I certainly didn’t want to go against the norms of cultural standards. I quizzed Faith extensively. Throughout the process, she was cooperative and sent me many pictures of what the dresses were supposed to look like. Since the design details were the choice of the family, Faith asked for the bodices to be stretchy (shirred) so that the girls could grow into them.

The shirred dress Faith sent me as an example

Looking for shirred bodice patterns online led me to Sew Jahit’s free tutorial with shirred straps.

Sew Jahit’s Shirred Bodice

Confession: I had never shirred a piece of fabric in my life !! With gulps of trepidation, I determined it would be best to send mock-ups so proper sizing could be assessed and to also give shirring a trial run. Haplessly, I ran out of muslin during the cutting process so scrap fabrics had to be substituted. Here’s Hope’s mock-up with sleeve variations…

And here’s Hope wearing it…

Grace and Ruby’s mock-ups followed the same procedure…

The pictures of the girls in their mock-ups sent me into risible fits: they looked like ragamuffins begging for alms in the street with their motley ensembles ! Despite the shabby appearance of the stand-in dresses, the mock-ups accomplished their purpose as I was able to fine tune the pattern measurements for the girls. Onto the real dresses !

I chose to use cotton batik fabric as the base for the dresses. With slight color variations and subtle patterns, it allowed for a more “textured” look and promised an added dimension to the largely plain areas of the dresses. Faith and her sister, Angel, had made a list of the colors of ribbons they preferred and together we worked to come up with the best and most culturally relevant schemes.

Working on the color schemes for the dresses

Sewing for a long distance client has a way of setting me on tenterhooks since I have no way of fitting and measuring in person. After much back-and-forth of sending pictures on Facebook Messenger, the dresses were completed and now it was time to ship them off to Idaho… Would they fit ?

I think that’s a “yes !”

The dresses were a perfect fit and the girls were able to go to the powwow in style.

Designing dresses for these girls was such a joy as they are tûtawi’u’ (that’s Pawnee for “full of life”). And they’re just adorable. Don’t you agree ?

Toi, Toi, Toi,

Mary Martha

5 thoughts on “Indian Ribbon Dresses for the Powwow

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