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Making ermine tubes.

The Crow, Blackfeet, and Sioux used ermine tubes extensively on warbonnets and war shirts. Figure 1 is a vintage photograph of a Blackfeet warrior wearing an ermine tube-decorated war shirt.

The first time I saw "ermine tubes" was in 1955: they were depicted in a painting by Langdon Kinn featured in the National Geographic book, Indians of the Americas [*] The painting made up for a lack of authenticity with an aura of the romance of the "Old West". It was an evocative scene of a group of warriors, identified as Sioux, playing the moccasin game and dressed in all their finery. Three of the warshirts shown were decorated with some ermine "skins". I remember looking at those ermine "skins" and wondering why they were so thin and without legs? I later learned that these were not whole skins, but skins that had been cut and sewn into tubes.

I learned how to make ermine tubes using what I now consider a somewhat tedious method: cut the pelt into strips, sew them inside-out with a whip stitch, and turn them outside-out. I sought a less tedious method that avoided the turning step. I believe the method that I describe in this article is easier and generates a nice-looking tube.

* Ermine skins are normally sold "cased"; that is the skin is stripped from the animal without making a longitudinal cut. Thus, the first step in making ermine tubes is to make a straight line longitudinal cut down the belly side of the pelt from head to tail (Figure 2). In cutting pelts, it is common to make a shallow cut on the "meat side" with a razor knife to avoid cutting the hair. However, for ermine tubes I have found that using a scissors and cutting through the hair works fine.

* Mark and cut the pelt with guidelines for the panels that will become the tubes. The width of the panels should be between 7/8 inches and 1 inch (Figures 3 and 4). Note the lines have been drawn in such a way as to include the tail to one side ofa panel. Most pelts are large enough to make just two panels and if you center the tail on one panel, you will have to sew the two outside panels together in order to get two tubes from one pelt. The method I use avoids that step.

* Since only one panel per pelt will have a tail, you will have to create a tail for the other panel(s) made from that pelt. There are a number of ways to do this, but the one that I prefer is to use another ermine tail. However, this can be expensive and you can make a fake ermine tail by gluing and sewing some dark fur at one end of the tailless panel. This was and is commonly done by crafts people using bear, otter, or other fur. If you do have extra ermine tails, you can glue and sew them to the inside of the tailless ermine strip (Figure 5).

* To make the panel into a tube, I use a "single-needle baseball stitch" with thread that has been bees waxed. The stitches are about 1/8 inch in from the side of the panel and about % inch apart. A pencil or a 5/16 inch dowel can be used as a form to shape the tube. Move the pencil/dowel along as you sew (Figure 6). This stitch has the attribute of butting the sides together very nicely. After the tube has been stitched, I use a fine awl to pull out any fur that has been caught by the stitching.

* The finished tubes from one pelt are shown in Figure 7.

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Historically, ermine tubes were most commonly used on warshirts, warbonnets, and splithorn bonnets. Figures 8 and 9 show a warbonnet and a splithorn bonnet, respectively, which have been decorated with ermine tubes.

References:

* Indians of the Americas. (1955). National Geographic. Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, pp. 76-77.

Joe Rosenthal

Photographs by the Author
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Author:Rosenthal, Joe
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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