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Lakota Music and Dance

The Women's Northern Shawl

Like most styles of its type, Woman’s Fancy Shawl is Pan Indian, but you can distinguish tribal styles within the wearer’s beadwork and decoration. As a beginning dancer, build your first set of clothes as though you were walking down the middle of the road. your goal is to find those items that are common among most Shawl Dancers. Don’t veer off on the shoulder of the road because you saw something and thought it was neat unless you intend to be absolutely true to ALL of that tribal styles idiosyncrasies. Your goal is to fit in, not to stand out.

With that in mind, this outline is a beginning. Based on the collected knowledge of several people conversant with Northern Style Dances. You will want to observe, observe and observe to complete your understanding of Woman’s Fancy Shawl.


All Shawl Dancers wear a shawl. This is the best place to start because as a woman, you may dance in slacks or skirt and a shawl thereby gaining experience. Wear athletic shoes or moccasins and never dance with bare feet in public.

MATERIAL: Polyester gabardine is the best. Wool can be used but tends to be hot. Lighter fabrics such as cotton or silk generally don’t hang as well but are sometimes seen. There is no restriction on color, but it should match the rest of your outfit.

The material is often a rectangle or square that when folded in half (not diagonally) will reach thumb to thumb across your back. The length of the folded material should reach from the back of the neck to 3-6 inches below the buttocks. Common shawl sizes are 60" by 60" or 60" by 72" with the 72" folded across the back. Place a 1/2" hem along the edge of the shawl, all the way around. This hem not only serves to stop the edges from unravelling but will hold the fringe in the material. Long fringe is needed. It's the fringe that makes a shawl "move" with movements of the woman carrying it. Common lengths of fringe vary from 14 inches to 20 inches in length.

FRINGE: Chainette Fringe is most commonly used. This type of fringe may be purchased cut by the yard, or in spools of 1 pound. Usually, 2 spools or 3 yards of cut fringe is sufficient to make a shawl. The common length for shawl dancers is 16-18"; however, lengths vary depending on the height of the dancer. Shawls are usually fringed on all four sides with the fringe spaced about 1/4-1/2 inch apart.

The fringe must be cut from their spool(s) in the lengths desired. If 16 inch fringe is desired on the finished shawl, cut the fringe in 36 inch lengths. The final product with fringe doubled will be 16 inches long. The added 4 inches is to allow for the tying of the knots to hold the fringe in place. A simple way of cutting fringe is to wrap it around a piece of heavy cardboard measuring the desired length of the fringe. After the fringe is wrapped around this board, cut one end. With a pile of fringe at your feet you are ready for ...

Tying on the fringe - Shawls can be fringed with one or two lengths per 1/4-1/2 inch space. Two lengths will give the shawl a much fuller look.

Figure 1. Space the fringe from 1/4" to 1/2" around the shawl.

Figure 2. Using a laarge eye needle or crochet hook, thread one or two lengths of frnge through the hem.

Figure 3. Loop the lengths of fringe through the hem and even off to equal lengths.

Figure 4. Tie an overhand knot with the pieces of fringe hanging from the hem.

Figure 5. Push the knot to the bottom of the hem and pull secure. Repeat this process, evenly spacing the fringe around the entire edge of the shawl. With the fringe hanging freely, trim to even lengths.


A very colorful addition to the shawl is the addition of pony beads or aurora borealis beads to the fringe. Before the overhand knot is tied, simply slide a bead up on the fringe to the edge of the hem and tie an overhand knot, securely.

For a much more attractive appearance, use double knots (Figure 6). This may take a little longer to complete, but the finished product will be well woth the effort. Some very fine old silk shawls have as many as 15 knots tied in the fringe, giving the gringe the appearance of a net.

Shoestring or flat fringe was very popular among the north in the 80s and although it has become difficult to get, is still a favored shawl fringe.

As a substitute, shawls made with 1/8 to 1/4 inch satin ribbon have been used. This type of shawl’s fringe is usually longer, 18-22 inches because it is stiffer. The ribbon advantage is color selection and cost but these shawls don’t flow as well.

Gaining in popularity is the wide satin ribbon shawl. One 100 yard spool of 3/4 inch ribbon is sufficient to make a 60x60" shawl. This type of ribbon is cut to finished length and sewn, not tied, width to width to the hem of all sides of your material. The ends must be finished by pinking or dipping in No-Fray. Adding interest by varying colors of the ribbons is also effective.


Embroidered floral or animal patterns or geometric designs and cutouts are most commonly seen. Shawls can be left plain if you wear a fully beaded or sequined cape but you won’t be sorry if you take the time to put some decoration on your shawl near the hand holds or along the bottom. Although you will see Southern Shawl Dancers and those from the Southwest and Midwest with ribbonwork patterns on their shawls and dresses, this isn’t common in the North.

SHAWL DANCE SET: The Shawl Dance Set consists of the following: Moccasins, Leggings, Hair Ornaments, Cape and Belt or Vest. In addition to these items, you may include cuffs. All of these items should match in design, color, and decoration element. The most common element is geometric, however, floral and animal designs are also seen.

BEADS: By far the preferred decoration for Shawl Dancers is beads. If you use a floral or animal design, the set is usually appliqué stitched. Geometrics are most often lazy stitched. The preferred type of bead is opaques seed, however, as outfits become more flashy, bugle bead backgrounds are also seen.

Choosing beadwork designs is very important. In this outline, we are referring to what is seen at large Northern Powwows. Try using common beadwork designs and colors from an area unless you have researched shawl dancers from another region. Don’t mix and match.

SEQUINS: At many of the urban dances you will see Shawl Dance Sets done in sequins. There are basically two construction techniques. One method is to hand stitch each sequin onto your material with a bead. The other is to hand stitch the sequins overlapping each other. THe background elements are stitched in lanes.

Another technique is to purchase sequined material and hand stitch the elements which are later glued in place. These elements are stitched onto buckram or stiffener and then hot-glued to the background. Lanes of sequins may be purchased from any fabric store and used to add design and interest. Although these sequin sets may be beautiful, they don’t hold up as well as a beaded set. Shawl Dance clothes take a lot of movement and perspiration. Before you decide that sequins are your thing, you will need to take durability into account.


BARRETTES: Several are worn. A large barrette is often placed at the back of the head spanning the center part if two braids are worn or across the braid if one braid is worn. Several small barrettes may be placed above each ear. Barrettes are most often beaded or quilled. These should all complement your shawl dance set.

HAIR WRAPS: A pair of large beaded hair wraps are traditionally worn somewhere in the braid or along the otter. These are tied or clipped about 4 inches below the shoulder.

FEATHERS and WHEELS: Eagle plumes are often seen on Shawl Dancers, however, these plumes are usually presented as gifts. They carry an obligation and the dancers wear them as an honor. Some might signify a naming, a relationship, or a blessing. Wheels, likewise have meaning. If you are new to dancing, it is best to avoid wearing these items.

OTTERS and RIBBONS: Most Shawl Dancers wear 2 fur drops, usually otter. The hair should be worn in two braids coming forward over the shoulder and the drops are tied to the hair at the collar bone level if possible. Usually, drops are long and extend to the knee. You may add a round shell to the tie point to hide the lacing. The drops are made of the stomach portion of a large otter hide or from a smaller otter hide which has been cut in half. Other furs have been used including old mink coats. Recently, as otter becomes increasingly difficult to obtain, multicolored ribbon drops are occasionally seen worn extending from the bottom of the hair wraps about 24 inches long. Drops are not used if only one braid is worn.

EARRINGS: Yes, absolutely. Quilled, beaded, or shell earrings are appropriate.


CAPES Come in many styles and sizes. They can be fringed in leather, chainette, shoestring fringe, ribbon, beads or left plain. There are two types of capes. Yoke style capes have similar decorated shapes front and back. Capes with front suspenders are usually tucked under the belt in the front and hang loose in the back. all visible pieces are beaded.

BELTS are most often beaded to match the capes, but you may also wear a plain silver conch belt.

VESTS have a beaded cape attached at the shoulder. The vest is also beaded in the front. Most often, a beaded belt is not required. Sequined sets often use vests rather than yokes or capes.

FOOTWEAR: By far, the most common type of foot and legwear are beaded leggings and moccasins. These should match your clothes in decoration style and element. In order to secure your leggings you may use ties, velcro, zippers, snaps or hooks.

Usually, leggings are shaped tubes tied in the front. The two most popular types of legging tops are: 1) tied just below the knee with a leather flap (sometimes fringed) that folds over your ties, or 2) the top is cut in the shape of a cowboy boot and the leggings are stiffened up until they stand on their own. Occasionally you will see some beaded tennis shoes but although these sound easy to make, they’re not. Among some tribes the Crow Style Boot is still popular.


Lightweight polyester silks or cottons are used. The current fashion is towards solid colors with ribbon decoration, piecework, or inserts. The garments should never be tight but properly tailored. Choose colors that complement your Shawl Set. Skirts and blouses are the most popular type of garment.

BLOUSES are usually collarless, long-sleeved with cuffs and a neck-fitting opening for the head. They close with a slit in the front or the back. The material should be the same type and color as the skirt. Sleeve decoration may match that on the skirt. Some shawl dancers will wear a T-shirt instead of a blouse on especially hot days. This should only be done if you are also wearing a full yoke or vest. Generally not recommended.

SKIRTS come in many different shapes; gathered, paneled, bias, flounced, straight, straight with pleated flounces or straight with inserts. The skirt should end several inches below the knee. It should hide the knee and the top of the legging while the dancer is in motion.

DRESSES aren’t as popular as they once were. They are almost always cut in a modified 'Y' with a straight skirt. In their hey day, some 20 years ago, these dresses were made of rich materials such as metallics or brocades.


SCARVES: Some do and some don’t wear scarves around the neck. If a scarf is worn, it is held together with a slide or a shell and thong.

CHOKERS: The use of chokers has declined in popularity. When chokers are worn, they are narrow with only 2 lanes of bone or, more often, seed bead-wrapped rope.

UNMENTIONABLES: Always wear good support garments. Excess bouncing is distracting to the audience. Some dancers wear bicycle shorts or lace bloomers under a gathered skirt. If your skirt is sheer, wear a slip.


If you find some of the headings in this short dissertation to be unusual you’re probably right. We want to address the entire dancer, not just the "beads and feathers". The dancers that you are emulating and the heritage from which you borrow as you develop your own identity is a proud one. Wear your clothes as though you were preparing for a special event every time you dance. Make sure that your garments are clean and pressed and that you are prepared to give your best. Cleanse your mind and heart of bad feelings, they have no place on the dance floor. Share what you know with others and listen patiently to your elders. Show respect but most of all, smile and have fun.


Women’s Fancy Shawl is a very vigorous dance. Originally, the style was to double step on each foot to the beat of the song, one step per beat. Tricks were added such as taking a quickstep, which is shifting the dancer’s weight between feet by only using 1 beat per shift. Shawl dancing has evolved so that each step has a spring, and the dancer spends more time in the air than with their feet on the ground. Today, spins, toe touches, dancing in place, dancing backwards and kicks are all part of the shawl dancer’s repertoire.

A couple of tips on dance styles. Remember that you are a lady and avoid any body position that might look vulgar. Avoid traveling too far too fast. Smaller steps allow you to concentrate on your tricks and improve your dance line. Dance with your whole body. Just as your shawl covers you from shoulder to toe, so should your dancing. Dance with your heart, not just your feet. The current style of arm position is open with the arms stretched outward. Make your shawl work for you. It is the major indicator of how well you are dancing. And lastly, the trick to being a good shawl dancer is make it look easy and fun. No matter how hard you are actually working, smooth everything out, go with the flow, and smile once in a while.

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