Sunday, November 28, 2010

Featured Traveler: Tawnya Hick-Letts

Tawny's Native American fusion dress- with hand-beading and braiding, and garments inspired by a plethora of tribes.

Like so many costumers, I started my craft at the Renaissance Festival. Like all costumers, I look at my beginning work with (and I quote my artist friend Cami Woodruff) "nostalgia, but mostly horror". With practice, exposure to new techniques, and instruction I was set right on my way to becoming a better costumer/artist/craftswoman- the person who gave me all three of these is my long-time mentor, friend, and jedi-master, Tawnya "Tawny" Hicks-Letts.

Over the years Tawny has taught me finishing techniques, loaned me books, fed me, gave me materials, and looked at my sketchpads and gave me encouraging grins and a fanfare of, "That's awesome!" No matter where I am right now in learning my craft, if I can ever become half as good as Tawny, I'll be a happy crow-lady. So, without further ado, here is some of the work of my mentor- most notably her take on Native American-European fusion. This regal dress was made for a Renaissance Festival, but it is inspiring nonetheless for anyone wanting to combine cultures into one spectacular outfit.

Tawny's original design for the ensemble
Yesterday Tawny pulled the five-year old outfit out of storage and gave it a good steaming, allowing her an opportunity to finally get some good photos of it. I asked her why she made it. She said that it was a journey to discover her ancestors- as she too is of Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe, in this case) descent, in addition to lineages in three other tribes and Scottish. Since all of these peoples were of equal importance in her heart- she decided to take design aspects from all of them and combine them into an ensemble that reflected her diverse heritage.

The underpinnings and apron- adorned with tinkling cones that are hallmark of the Ojibwe
Pinning down her favorite aspect of the ensemble was also a challenge, as she thoroughly enjoyed making and wearing the whole thing. It was the construction, she said, that held a high significance to her. It was rediscovering old pathways, garments, and techniques that would have been used by her ancestors- now being practiced by her so many generations later. Perhaps not with the same materials, but it is still a strong link.

The beaded and fringed jacket.
Tawny was one of the first people I showed my nativepunk design to. While she is relatively new to steampunk, specifically, she offered her insights on those who would wish to attempt one influenced by another culture. "You have to think about intent... I was never trying to make a social statement, I made this for art." Out of respect and propriety, Tawny only wears this outfit to festival, vowing (just like me) never to wear her fusion project to a powwow or reenactment event.

Back of the ensemble, with shawl.
Tawny will occasionally work on commission, but predominately she does her exquisite costumery for pleasure and (most of all) education- so sadly she has no website or online store. In addition, due to the nature of her job, she prefers her email to remain private. However, if you have questions for her, you may either post them below or send them to Miss Kagashi for forwarding- so feel free to ask.

The massive cloth headwrap- inspired by Cherokee and Eastern Woodlands turbans.


  1. Fantastic dress! To me it seems to go without saying that this beautiful piece of work would not go to a powwow or reennactment. After all, it's meant for neither.

    On to the questions!
    The headwrap is inspired by Cherokee and Eastern Woodlands but what is the inspiration for the other parts?

    Do the colors hold any special meaning? Other than, just liking those colors. (Which are pretty!)

    There is a significant difference in the design sketches' bodice/apron and the final creation's bodice/apron. Was there a significant reason for this change?

    Thanks for answering my questions!

  2. Good Evening,

    The sketch was actually done quite a bit before the actual construction of the garment. I'm in an ongoing and slow process of following my ancestry and as many of us researchers know, records during tumultuous times have a tendency to "poof". So, I didn't have exact specific nations to start with (I knew some, but not all). I decided to take several generations of what I had found at that point, Northwest/Pacific, Northeast, Eastern, with the strongest in the Midwest, and did extensive research; sketching out the various silhouettes. These combined into the first sketch. After that, I did a lot of asking... I have numerous good friends that are significantly involved in the Native American celebrations in the area, not just the Powwow circuit. One in particular told me to go around to the artisans and experts at the events, and simply just.. ask, and be honest. I was told not to say; “this is what I’m doing”, but rather; “what should I do”? This went on for about a year, where I collected bits from each of the artisans and raw suppliers I talked to (yes, there are right and wrong people to purchase from), received a lot of construction demonstrations, and developed a lot of respect for the craft before any construction was ever started. The design organically changed, the addition of the shawl, the hundreds of copper coins from around the world that you can’t see on the garment (they lace the arms of the shawl, the vest and the lengths of the front aprons- there are two layered aprons). The headpiece developed into a wrap, the bodice wrap turned into a vest, the apron developed hand woven accents-beads-embroidery, and the bone breastplate was removed. Most of the time, the vest is left off, and just the shawl is worn over the yellow straight dress top with all the other accoutrements. The vest is incredibly heavy anyway, and my shoulders just don’t quite like the weight.

    Color-wise, I knew there were so many different significances to so many different nations that this would be the hardest decision. My friend suggested I use the colors of the medicine wheel with brown as the neutral. The dialogue her and I had could be a blog in itself, but the gist of the conversation was that the significance of the wheel represented what I was trying to do, therefore the colors would be what I was looking for (I apologize for the simplification of the conversation). Yellow was the base and was purposeful, with red, white and blue accents, and very little black.

    Thanks for your questions!

  3. Wow, this is very inspiring, as I am of Celtic (Irish & Scottish), Tsalagi (Cherokee), Egyptian, and Ethiopian heritage. Any ideas on how to blend those? ^_^

  4. Thank you, Tawny! I really appreciate your time and the fantastic explanation. :)

    Would love to see more of your work in the future.


  5. This is a really beautiful dress, I love it. How long did it take you to make it?

  6. Awahili—

    The simplest way to blend would be to start with some pictures. What pieces of clothing seem to be similar? From there, look at what motifs and color combinations cross cultural lines, what styles could be combined by using one nation's fabrics for another nation's styles, and so on.