How To Sew a Cherokee Tear Dress

by Contributing Writer

The National Council of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma designated the Cherokee Tear Dress as the official tribal dress of Cherokee women. Its history derives from the Trail of Tears of 1838 to 1839 when Andrew Jackson forced the removal of the Cherokee from their native lands to Oklahoma. Because the women had no scissors with which to cut fabric, they had to tear the cloth; resulting in pieces of cloth that were either square or rectangular, hence the tear dress of the Trail of Tears. The historic authenticity of this dress can be traced back only to 30 years after the tragic events.

Choose 100 percent cotton fabric with a small calico print. The colors can be dark for work or bright for celebrations. The amount of fabric depends on whether you choose a three-quarter-length style in the sleeves and skirt or full-length and whether a young girl or a tall, full-bodied woman. Even a child will require a minimum of 5 feet of 45-inch-wide fabric to accommodate trim and flounces.

Make the trim by using the reverse of the fabric and matching solid colored fabric to form appliqués and reverse appliqués. The fabric for the appliqué trim is torn along the salvage and sewn onto a piece of bright cotton that matches a color in the design of the dress fabric. It is used on the shoulder yokes, on a band around the elbow and approximately knee-length around the skirt.

Tear all pieces of the Cherokee Tear Dress into either squares or rectangles. The length and width of the pieces determine how well the dress fits. The pieces are as long as the section of the dress requires. The sleeve pieces are arm length, the bodice squares fit the torso, the top portion of the skirt is as long as from the waste to the knees and the skirt flounce is either three-quarter-length from the knees to mid-calf or sweeps the floor. Do not use ribbons. They are not authentic. Women on the Trail of Tears did not have ribbon.

Measure each piece of the dress along the grain of the fabric to the dimensions, length and fullness, of the person wearing the dress for the dress to fit and be attractive.

Pin each piece of the dress before sewing to ensure the shape and fit of the Cherokee Tear Dress. This is a labor-intensive endeavor with no shortcuts.

Sew the torn rectangular or square gussets into the bodice and under the sleeves before attaching them with pins to the yoke on the outside and then sewing them. Sewing a Cherokee Tear Dress is very much like sewing a quilt. Each piece must be pinned together in sequence and then held up to measure on the dress wearer to make sure that the squares and rectangles coordinate for an elegant rather than a bulky fit.

Attach a small stand-up ruffle to where the lower bodice and sleeve attach to the yoke. This helps give definition to the bodice and covers up the obvious tearing of the fabric. Women during the Trail of Tears had little fabric with which to work. The U.S. government seized all the holdings of the Cherokee. They were allowed only what they could carry.

Attach another small ruffle to where the upper portion of the skirt and the flounce meet–adding definition and purpose to the torn fabric.

Attach the trim, appliqué on complimentary fabric backing to the shoulder strips of the yoke, as bands around the sleeves, and above the flounce of the skirt.

Attach the dress at the bodice and waste with broach pins–the original Cherokee Tear Dress had no button holes, hooks and eyes, or zippers.

Items you will need

  • Cotton calico for dress and reverse applique
  • Needle
  • Thread

Photo Credits

  • Ablestock.com/AbleStock.com/Getty Images