How to Make an Indian Wing Dress

Regalia appears only at powwows and other traditional gatherings.
Regalia appears only at powwows and other traditional gatherings. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

The terminology "wing dress" is not applied by all native American tribes, but many groups refer to a simple, one piece garment, whether shirt or dress, as a T-shirt or T-dress because it creates wings when the wearer spreads her arms. All these simple garments were once made of hides, probably tanned, dyed, beaded, and fringed. Printed gingham, luxurious velvet and satin or leather-like fabrics have replaced leather for more modern regalia.

Things You'll Need

  • Measuring tape
  • Notebook
  • Pencil
  • Dress fabric
  • Scissors
  • Chalk or air erasable pen
  • Sewing machine or needle
  • Thread
  • Bias binding
  • Ribbons
  • Ready-made fringe
  • Dyed feathers

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Measure the prospective T-dress wearer from wrist to wrist across the back with a tape measure. Decide whether or not the sleeves will be elbow length, short or long and record that width. The distance between the sleeve ends will determine how wide the fabric must be. Most common cotton or blended dress fabrics are 45 inches wide while other fabrics will be 54 inches or wider.

Measure the length desired by placing the end of a tape measure on the wearer's back neck and down to the hemline. This measure multiplied by 2 will be the amount of fabric needed plus allowance for a hem. If the dress is for a child, for example, the finished length might be 24 inches. Multiply 24 by 2 and add two inches for hems. The total would be about 1 1/2 yards.

Purchase the chosen fabric in the length required for the dress. Fold the fabric exactly in half across its width and cut a half circle about six or more inches wide in the center of the folded edge to form an oval opening for the wearer's head. Check the size of the opening to determine that it is large enough. If not, enlarge the opening.

Ask the wearer to hold up her arms parallel to the floor. Mark the ends of the sleeves with chalk or air erasable pen. Remove the fabric from the body and lay it out wrong side out, folded across the top as before. Mark the sleeves as wide as desired and measure the length of the sleeves from the sides of the fabric to mark the place to begin sewing the sides of the dress.

Draw the shape of the dress with chalk or air erasable pen on the wrong side of the fabric. Many T-dresses are straight down from the armholes, but others are A-line shaped. Sew by hand or by machine on the marked line up from the hemline to the armhole. Reinforce by stitching twice at the top of the dress sides.

Finish the neck edge with bias binding or a narrow hem. Finish the sleeve ends and underarms with a narrow hem or bias binding. Finish the bottom of the dress with a two-inch hem.

Add embellishments to the T-dress beginning with the underarms and sleeve ends. Fringes of all kinds are appropriate and add to the "wing" illusion. Make fringes from ribbons, fabric strips or brightly dyed feathers or add purchased fringe. Any number of bands of ribbon may be added to sleeves, neckline and hemline. Embroidery is appropriate across the back of a dress or across the front. There are usually no limitations on colors or decorations except those imposed by the customs of the band or tribe.

Tips & Warnings

  • If the fabric is not wide enough to make the sleeves as long as desired, plan to add a strip of matching or contrasting fabric to the ends of the sleeves.
  • Make sure the size of the body between the sleeves is big enough for the wearer by measuring the wearer around the bustline and adding 4 to 6 inches for ease. To enlarge the size of the dress body, add pieces of fabric to the sides.
  • Continue the side seams onto the sleeves by making a curved line of stitching which will need to be reinforced and clipped when finished.
  • Note that the method of making a t-shirt for a boy or man is exactly the same, except cut shorter to be worn over trousers.


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