Native American textiles and Japanese Buddhist robes in the Windy City

In January I made a trip to Chicago for work. It was the week that started with the ‘Artic Plume’ weather system hitting the Mid-West and ended with the blizzards on the East Coast, so it was very cold (below -30°C when I landed), but mostly crisp, and a balmy -10°C by the time I left!


Chicago downtown from the Museum Campus. Frozen Lake Michigan to the right.

In between my work appointments I paid a visit to The Field Museum of Natural History, which I knew has very good collections of Native American artefacts and textiles, especially from the Pacific Northwest and the Plains region. It was fabulous! Seriously, if you are interested in Native American textiles and in the Chicago area you should not miss The Field (and there are no quilt shops in downtown Chicago, so what else is a girl to do?). The textile galleries of course have very low-lighting levels to preserve the fabrics, and everything was behind glass, so it wasn’t easy to photograph things (no flash, naturally) very well. Hopefully the photo’s below will still give an impression of the richness of the exhibits.


A Pacific Northwest house interior, set as a stage, ready for a ceremony.

My own special interest is the art of the Pacific Northwest, so I was very busy with my camera in that gallery. Obviously, as well as textiles the cases contained all sorts of other artefacts, that showed which objects were used in daily life and on special occasions, including things such as weaving looms. 


Clothing and hats made of spruce-bark cloth and spruce-roots.

Much of the basis of the collections at the Field date from the Chicago Columbian Fair in 1893: most of the ethnographic exhibits from the fair were purchased and became the basis for the Museum collections. Large amounts of clothing and artefacts (and also their owners, who were also put on display!) were brought from the Pacific Northwest, the artic, and the Plains and Montane Native American areas. The Pacific Northwest collections are particularly interesting, as not many textiles survive from that area from the 19th century. Most museum collections have art, artefacts from daily and ceremonial use (such as masks), jewellery and the odd spruce root hat, but no clothing.


Clothing made of leather, decorated with beads and feathers.


A dancer’s tunic made of textiles and wood.


A shirt with painted decoration.


A painted tunic.

Button blanket

Appliqué and painted cloaks and button blankets.


A woven Chilkat blanket (worn as a cape) featuring orcas.

Seal skin

Waterproof clothing made of seal skins.

Beaded dresses

Beaded women’s dresses and shoes made of buckskins.

There was also clothing from further afield.


Inuit clothing from Greenland.

Inuit parka

An Inuit parka. Photo © and courtesy of The Field Museum, Chicago.

And from the Native Americans of the plains and montane regions. One of the largest structures in the Native American galleries is a complete Pawnee Earth Lodge, a traditional multi-family dwelling such as used to be built in Nebraska. You can go into the lodge and talk to docents, and see and touch the objects inside.


The entrance to the Pawnee Earth Lodge

The lodge has low benches around the interior, covered with bison skins: I was very surprised to discover that the hairs were very soft and cozy, I had though they would be hard like cattle hair, but that was only true of the long hairs around the neck and legs.

Lodge interior

The interior of the Lodge. Bison skin benches left en right.


Pawnee painted Bison hide.

The interior was decorated with painted hides. The docent explained that Pawnee women painted their hides with geometric patterns, (they reminded me of quilts) whilst the men painted figurative hunting scenes. The society was matrilineal, so Grandma was in control, and chose which daughter inherited the lodge and material possessions.

After the Lodge came the galleries of clothing of the plains. There were crowded with display cases full of fantastic beaded dresses and costumes, but they were light coloured against a pale background and very close together and there were so many reflections that it was almost impossible to take good photo’s.

Plains gallery

Clothing of the Native Americans of the plains.


Chippewa man’s outfit. Fabulous beading!

skin dresses

Dresses made of skins, decorated with beads.


Navajo blankets and rugs.


Sioux beaded waistcoat. Photo © and courtesy of The Field Museum, Chicago.

Sioux shirt

Sioux shirt with painted decoration. Photo © and courtesy of The Field Museum, Chicago.

Hopi Zuni

Hopi and Zuni textiles.

Elsewhere in the museum there were also a few textiles from ancient central and south America.

Central america

Wari textile, south America.

For my work, I was at the Art Institute of Chicago (also highly recommended for art lovers) and although that is not what I was there for, they too had some textiles on offer.


I liked this colourful embroidered cloth from Sub-Saharan Africa in the African Art Gallery.

There was also an exhibition of Kesa, traditional Japanese Buddhist monks’ vestments. These rectangular garments are a sort of stiff cape, worn over one shoulder and under the other, crossing in the front of the body and held on with straps. They are made up of strips and patches of brocade, with the number of strips having significance. So yes, they are patchwork. 


A purple brocade Kesa.

Kesa 3

On this seven-strip Kesa, the patchwork is easy to see.

Kesa 1

A stunning deep orange and gold brocade Kesa.

And to close, something a little different: at the Art Institute they had a display of Shaker furniture: in the middle, a sewing desk, with a large surface for sewing on and drawers to hold all your supplies. Apparently these desks were often made in twos, set back to back, so that sisters could sew in companionship.


Shaker furniture, with a sewing desk in the centre of the photo.

So even though there wasn’t a quilt shop, I still had a great time textile-wise in the Windy City! 

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