May 28, 2018
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Stitching history

By Jessica Bloch, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA — The room in the Maine State Museum was small and a little stuffy. The plain white walls seemed even brighter than normal thanks to overhead lights and extra lamps set up around the room.

Four women sitting around a table that took up most of the room barely noticed any outside distractions of visitors and museum staff members watching them work. They worked mostly in silence, heads bowed over pieces of wool or silk in front of them.

Frances Frey, who goes by the nickname Gal, leaned forward in her chair. Holding a threaded needle between the index finger and thumb of her right hand, Frey wove a cluster of four tiny white beads onto the needle and stitched them into the specially dyed red wool broadcloth in front of her.

On it went, until Frey had stitched a line of beads into the cloth. Across the table, Jennifer Neptune was doing similar beadwork. To Frey’s left, Marion Scharoun was working with another piece of cloth, and to Frey’s right, Rose Tomah was sewing together ribbons of silk.

It was painstaking but important work for the Maine State Museum — and personally so for Frey, Neptune and Tomah, all members of Maine’s Wabanaki Indian tribes. The four women are working to re-create a seven-piece costume that would have been worn by a chief in the Maliseet tribe, one of the Wabanaki tribes found in Maine.

The re-creation is part of the museum exhibit “Uncommon Threads: Wabanaki Textiles, Clothing and Costume” which opened May 23, 2009, and is expected to continue through this summer. One of the displays in “Uncommon Threads” is a 1986 reproduction of a Maliseet man’s costume that would have been made around 1760-80.

The replica is on loan from the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John, which also lent the Maine State Museum the original breechcloth on which the replica was based. Maine State Museum staff members Laurie LaBar and Bruce Bourque, who co-curated “Uncommon Threads.” LaBar said the New Brunswick Museum’s original costume is one of three such Wabanaki costumes still in existence and the only Maliseet example of such a costume.

At least 250 years old, the original costume, which includes a mantle known as a matchcoat, a breechcloth, two sashes, two leggings and a double-peaked cap, is too fragile to display.

The New Brunswick Museum wants its replica back eventually, and that’s where Scharoun, Frey, Neptune and Tomah come in. The four women are teaming up to produce a replica of the replica, so to speak, which will be kept permanently at the Maine State Museum.

The museum could easily display photographs of the outfit, but LaBar wanted something that could be displayed as it might have looked in real life.

“The outfit, when it’s on the mannequin, has so much power,” she said. “It’s a very dramatic outfit, and you get a sense of the person’s personality, that this was a person who was highly respected and who was a player in the day. It’s exciting to be able to see that.”

To re-create the outfit, however, LaBar needed the right team, and wanted to make sure she included some members of the Wabanaki community. LaBar obtained grants from the Davis Family and Coby foundations to bring in the four women.

Scharoun, who is not a member of an Indian tribe, is a Farmington resident and textile artisan who helped to set up “Uncommon Threads” and has experience in the reproduction of upholstery.

The other three women are considered experts in their tribal communities. LaBar first contacted Neptune, who is a member of the Penobscot tribe and lives on Indian Island, and has worked with the Maine State Museum in the past. Neptune suggested Frey, a Passamaquoddy who lives in Indian Township and has been beading for more than 20 years.

LaBar then contacted Houlton Band of Maliseet Chief Brenda Commander, who recommended Houlton resident Tomah, well-known in the Maliseet community for her textile work.

“We didn’t hire these guys because they can sew,” LaBar said. “We wanted their input as members of their communities, not just as artisans. There have been Wabanaki advisers to this exhibit from Day One.”

Before they began their work, LaBar and the four women traveled to Saint John for a look at the original costume and reproduction. After extensive photography of the outfit’s details, the group talked about how to tackle their reproduction.

They decided to take things, in some cases, a step or two further than the version from the 1986. One of the biggest changes will be the number of small silver-toned brooches that were pinned to the original sashes. The 1986 replica had just a few aluminum brooches pinned to the sashes, but LaBar and the four women found from hole marks and the wear of the silk of the original evidence of more than 70 brooches pinned to the sashes.

So the Maine State Museum’s version will have many more brooches than the first reproduction. The brooches will be made of nickel silver called paktong, which is more affordable than silver for the museum and maintains its shine.

In other ways, however, the new reproduction won’t be true to the original. The silk ribbons used for the original sashes are no longer available, so LaBar had pieces of silk dyed to the purple, gray and yellows of the replica.

“We ripped the silk into ribbon sizes, so that’s a little different,” Neptune said. “We have to turn [the ribbons] under and stitch the edges.”

The glass beads — of which there will likely be more than 11,000 — are smaller than those on the original.

LaBar said the women hope to add to the exhibit a linen or cotton shirt, similar to one worn in the 18th century; the 1980s replica does not have such a shirt.

Although each of the four women — plus LaBar, who helps the women when she can — has a specialty, it is likely they each will have had a hand in every piece of the costume by the time the reproduction is finished.

That’s probably how many of the costumes were made, the women said, even though Neptune said there are no records to support that theory.

“I’m sure more than one person did it,” she said. “Sometimes on the old pieces, if you look really close you can see where some of the stitches are different from another in the different pieces and parts. A lot of times on the collars and the cuffs you can tell different people worked on it.”

“Uncommon Threads” and the costume reproduction will travel to museums in Canada and the Northeast starting in 2011, but the tribal artisans would like to see the chief’s costume visit each of their communities.

Perhaps the costume could even inspire another generation of textile or bead artisans, which all three Wabanaki women said are areas with little interest from young people.

“There isn’t much interest out there because there’s no one to encourage them or to teach them,” Tomah said. “There isn’t anyone out there.”

The women are under a deadline of June, when the replica will go back to New Brunswick, and they expect to be finished before then. They’re planning to meet again sometime this month at the Maine State Museum.

Although visitors occasionally poke their heads into the bright, quiet room, and museum staff filmed part of their work last month, the women said they’ve grown used to onlookers.

“Doing this kind of work, you concentrate and focus,” Neptune said. “It’s meditative. The time goes fast. We’re always surprised when someone looks at the clock and it’s hours after what we thought it was.”


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