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Kalispell artist Elane Snyder explains the history behind her buckskin clothing creations on display through May at the Artists' Shop in downtown Missoula. Snyder makes both historic replicas and modern designs in buckskin.
KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Preview: "Buckskin: From Ancient Textile to Modern Leather," a buckskin clothing show by Kalispell artist Elaine Snyder, will be on display at Missoula's Artists' Shop, 306 N. Higgins, from May 7-31. An artist's reception will be held on Friday, May 30, from 5 to 8 p.m. Snyder encourages everyone to wear buckskin or leather clothing to the reception. The show and reception are being held concurrent with the Lewis and Clark "Confluence of Cultures" hosted by the University of Montana Continuing Education Program.

Elaine Snyder has been making clothes since she was 8 years old in 4-H Club.

Later, she received the most modern training in clothing design and tailoring in a degree from Ohio State University.

When Snyder left her job as a buyer for prestigious New York clothier Lord and Taylor, and moved to Montana in 1974, she didn't know she was also making a career move back in time.

The Kalispell artist has used a combination of her sophisticated training and extensive historical research to revive a clothing fashion that was popular a couple of centuries ago - buckskin.

A show of Snyder's work, "Buckskin: From Ancient Textile to Modern Leather," will be on display throughout May at Missoula's Artist's Shop, an artist-run fine crafts coop at 306 North Higgins that recently opened for its 11th season.

"This is the new age of buckskin," Snyder proclaims.

Her Missoula show spotlights the range of her work, from traditional Plains Indian and frontiersman, or "mountain man" clothing from the early 1800s, to modern designs in buckskin.

The show features a "Corps of Discovery jacket" of the type worn by Lewis and Clark on their expedition 200 years ago, as well as "Bird Woman's traveling dress," a replica of the type of buckskin dress worn by Sacajawea when she accompanied the explorers and served as their guide.

Also in Snyder's show at the Artist's Shop is an example of her custom buckskin design work - a white ceremonial dress that a woman might wear for a wedding or other special occasion today.

Snyder has outfitted musicians, rendezvous participants, brides and grooms, horsewomen, stylish Westerners, and elk hunters who want to "wear their trophies" in buckskin, she says.

"A lot of people bring me their tanned deer and elk hides," says Snyder. "And then I have to be really creative to match their size to their hides and the style they want. I'd say half of my work is custom and half is for people who bring me their hides."

Customers can pick styles from an extensive photo portfolio that she's compiled, says Snyder. "But," she adds, "a lot of my work is one-of-a-kind."

Compared to working with other fabrics, Snyder says, "buckskin has a lot of idiosyncrasies."

Buckskin is any wild big game hide - deer, elk, moose or antelope - that has been tanned. Indians traditionally used an ancient method called brain tanning to prepare hides for use as clothing and shelter. Although rare, the method is still used by Indians and other modern artists.

The most common commercial leather today is made by "chrome tanning."

Snyder uses buckskin tanned by Hagel's Tannery in Kalispell, a small family-run business that has been in operation since the '40s, when Fred Hagel perfected a tanning solution, process and machinery that produces buckskin that has the fine, soft texture of brain-tanned hides.

The buckskin produced in brain tanning and in Hagel's Tannery is white. The buckskin is smoked to give it the familiar yellowish-tan color and to soften it. Various shades of buckskin are created by the length of time it is smoked and the type of wood used, according to Snyder.

The natural white buckskin was used primarily for ceremonial clothing by Indians, she says.

It takes about a week for her to make a buckskin jacket after the fitting, measuring and planning are completed, Snyder says.

"I stretch all the hides on a sheet of plywood," she says. "Then I spray them with water. The stretching stabilizes the buckskin. Then I can start to use patterns. When the Indians did it, they used sinew and tendons to stitch. And they cut lacing out of hides. I actually use an industrial sewing machine for my structural seams instead of a knife and awl."

Snyder also uses decorative "buckstitching" in her garmets.

"It's a form of embroidery stitching with leather lacing and on a bigger scale," she says.

Snyder has thoroughly researched traditional buckskin clothing through historical documents - "I have my own library," she says. - and regular visits to museums, especially the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Neb., and the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum in Cody, Wyo.

She has a collection of buckskin clothing from the late 1800s that came from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Among the reference books in her library is a copy of the journal kept by member of the Corps of Discovery who served as the expedition's tailor.

Buckskin was preferred by Indians and frontiersmen over cloth as a clothing material, Snyder says.

"In a lot of ways they were really durable," she says. "It helped them walk through the brush. And real brain-tanned buckskin is like felted wool. You can get it wet, wring it out, and still wear it."

The fringes that are usually found on traditional buckskin clothing are functional, she says. They help the garment shed water.

But buckskin isn't very practical as active outdoors clothing today, she adds.

"They're awfully heavy," says Snyder. "And they're not as efficient as the new fabrics."

But plenty of folks today are staying in style in Snyder's buckskins.

Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at dgadbow@missoulian.com

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