Moose hair embroidery, usually done on birch bark but occasionally on woolen or velvet cloth, began around 1700 was an art practiced by Native American tribes in Maine, Vermont, upper New York state, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Native American girls learned embroidery work in Quebec convent schools run by French Ursuline nuns. French embroidery using silk thread, woven cloth, European needles and scissors was taught in these convent schools. When cloth and silk thread became scarce the nuns and their Indian pupils turned to materials available - birch bark and moose hair. The young women who learned this art returned to their tribal homes upon finishing school and there continued making moose hair embroidered objects. The Quebec tribes, Huron/Wyandot, Mohawk and Maliseet seem to have been the first to practice this art with the MicMac of western Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia starting to make moose hair embroidered items about 1790. An interesting note - the oldest known MicMac moose hair embroidered item was a sewing basket made in 1791 by a New Brunswick Micmac woman, Elasaba. This basket was presented to Mrs. Benedict Arnold.
Photo descriptions/explanations at end of article
Moose hair embroidered items were made from around 1700 until the 1880's and rarely made after that. I know of no Native American artists currently practicing this wonderful art form. (Please - Contact me if you are such an artist or know of someone who is)
Moose hair used for embroidery comes from the mane of a moose where the hair is the longest. The fall and winter coats of the moose have the highest quality of hair for this use. The white mane hairs under the neck easily pick up dye and were dyed with natural vegetal dyes until the late 1800's when some moose hair was dyed with commercial aniline dyes. Aniline dying reduced some of the work involved in the dyeing process. To embroider an item, a single moose hair threaded through a needle was used. Various European embroidery stitches were drawn upon in the execution of the designs. The only indigenous technique used was moose hair tufting. The art of tufting involves twisting several hairs into bundles, knotting one end, placing the knot on the underneath of the work, bringing the loose ends up to the front side and then trimming the bundles. The moose tufting art takes patience and a steady hand. Moose hair tufts are not found on all moose hair embroidery work. I will include the tufting on any description of a moose hair embroidered piece that has tufting and is offered for sale in the store section of this website. Most of the moose hair embroidery designs reflect the French influence and are generally floral. Seveal new world plants were incorporated into the designs, showing that the Indian seamstress was incorporating her world into her work. The exception to the floral designs are works done by Huron artists that are pictorial in nature. These show people and animals. Such pictorial works have included Native Americans in canoes, and both Native Americans and people dressed in European style standing next to trees and wigwams, smoking pipes .... Animals and birds depicted include dogs, foxes, bears, wolves, eagles, dove like birds, robin like birds and turkey like birds. The pictorial moose hair embroidered items are much less common than the floral designs.
The moose hair embroidered items that the former convent school girls continued to make were mostly made for sale as souvenirs to non-natives. Such items included card tays, trinket boxes, cigar/cheroot cases, glasses cases, pocket watch wall pockets, wallets, purses, chair bottoms and backs, cradles, tea cozies, and scissor, fans and bouquet holders as well. Some items were made for tribal members, these included moccasins, shirt cuffs and collars, and decorative strips for leggings and gloves/mittens. Many spectacular pieces show up in England and France where they were sent or brought as gifts and mementos by early diplomats and wealthy settlers who had been in Quebec and NE USA.
Many of the larger pieces, such as cradles or chairs are in museums. Extremely rarely are these available on the market. The smaller items are also scarce and generally unavailable. The birch bark and the moose hair are delicate and easily damaged so many of the items originally made have not survived. The majority of moose hair embroidered items, in museums, private collections and the few available on the market, have some damage, most often the damage is loss of some or all of the moose hair. But many of these with some damage remain beautiful. The attractiveness of the moose hair embroidery has inspired many to collect these objects. When you know the history and the amount of effort that has gone into making them, they become even more captivating.
Moose Hair Embroidered Cherrot/Cigar Case, C/1850-80 - on Stroud cloth over birch bark (Available in "Vintage Maine Items"- Store section - this website) Or click link
Moose Hair Embroidered Miniature Trunk/Casket, C/last 1/2 of 18th century - on birch bark (Available in "Vintage Maine Items"- store section - this website) Or click link
Moose Hair Embroidered Huron Pictorial Needle case c/1840-1860, - on birch bark (Available in Vintage Maine Items"- store section - this website) Or click link
Moose Hair Embroidered Glenngarry Hat c./1850-80 on black velvet (Sold at London Auction 2012)