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February 4, 2008

Cherokee tear dresses, a passion

PARK HILL — Traditional Cherokee tear dresses have many different colors and fabrics but with a basic style.

Tonia Weavel, education director for the Cherokee Heritage Center, has been making Cherokee dresses for more than 20 years.

“Everybody has their own ideas and family colors,” Weavel said. “We live in 2008 and the design should reflect who we are now.”

The style of the dress was developed in the 1950s when Virginia Stroud, a Cherokee woman who was adopted by a Kiowa family, won the Miss Indian America. Cherokee Chief William Wayne Keeler handpicked a committee to find something more suitable for Stroud to wear during her reign.

One of the members, Wynona Day, had in a trunk that came over The Trail of Tears, a dress that was passed down into her family. The dress is the what the Cherokees used as a master copy for all traditional tear dresses to come.

“I put in about 10 to 12 hours on a dress,” she said. “I have made probably 300 dresses.”

Weavel is the student of Cherokee Master Craftsman Wendell Cochran.

“He’s the man,” she said. “I was fortunate to get to do my internship with him. He has helped me mold to his style.”

Weavel said that most of the tear dresses are made of cotton or calico.

The 1950s style of the dress features a three-quarter-length sleeve that would have been easy to roll up for working in the fields or doing dishes. Buttons in the front were for easier accessibility for nursing mothers.

“The whole idea is very utilitarian — very simple,” Weavel said.

Weavel said she enjoys using bright colors and different patterns on fabric to make the tear dresses.

“I try to step out of the box,” she said.

Weavel said she makes mostly children’s tear dresses for the Little Miss Cherokee and the Junior Miss Cherokee competitions and she tries to do what the family wants.

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