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Keeping Alive A Vanishing Art: Buckskin Tailor Elaine Snyder
Montana Senior News, June/July 2012
In the 1970s when adventurers eager for the open road headed west in their VW vans, many toted along beloved guitars and backpacks. But not Elaine Snyder. When Elaine departed the East coast for her odys­sey to Montana, the one item she made sure to take was her trusty old Necchi sewing machine.

Considering that Elaine won that workhorse in a state fair sewing competition, learned to tailor during her 4-H years, and went on to graduate from Ohio State with a degree in clothing design and textiles, you can understand why she says, “That sewing machine was part of me.”After college, Elaine worked as an assistant buyer in New York City’s sophisticated fashion world and spent countless hours happily exploring art museums. However, the Big Apple never felt like home to this Ohio farm girl. It was not until Elaine set foot in the Flathead for the first time that she instinctively knew she had found the place where she belonged.

“I fit in with the landscape and decided to stay,” recalls Elaine, who had intended to rely on her tailoring talents to earn a living wherever she ended up. But never did she imagine that she would one day become a buckskin clothier. Like so much in life, it happened serendipitously.

“I had made myself a wool jacket in the fall of 1974. A musician friend, who was a hunter, saw it and asked if I could make him a Western shirt out of hides,” recollects Elaine. Having been thoroughly schooled in tailoring basics, Elaine relished the challenge despite her lack of experience with buckskin and her lack of a mentor. She realized she would have to learn to prepare the hides, which included how to correctly stretch hides and lay pattern pieces on them.

By Elaine’s current standards, that first shirt was definitely rustic. But for this seamstress it was an education and a revelation — a quest that lured her to become better acquainted with the wardrobe of Montana’s past and how to recreate it. Since the musician eventually outgrew his shirt, which looks as rugged as the mountain men who once wore this type of garment, Elaine got it back from him. Fashioning it taught her many lessons.

“You have to practice – keep practicing and then be willing to see things through to completion,” she says. “In the beginning, there are no mistakes – just learning experiences. So don’t judge yourself harshly. You can turn mistakes into challenges and create something different from them. Leather is very for­giving like that.”

As an example, Elaine points out how some hides include markings that she has to make disappear. She does not question her decision to use that particular hide but trusts her intuition to figure out how to handle the flaw. Typically, she views blemishes as opportunities to incorporate beautiful asymmetric detail­ing such as beading, silver buttons, or braiding into a garment or handbag.

“You have to accept the hides as they are and not as you want them to be. You learn to deal with the holes and discolorations and design them into things,” explains Elaine. “Leather lets you do that.”

Elaine’s extensive background in garment construction plus her love of history provided the ideal tools to pursue her career. Today, she sells her fantastically handsome one-of-a-kind vests, jackets, dusters, and pocketbooks through art shows, her studio and web site, gift shops, and galleries. She also makes capes, dresses, and shirts – all custom designed and sized. Most of her clients are baby boomers that know and appreciate leather craftsmanship, though she some­times sells to younger rodeo riders. Occasionally, she notices a gal on television wearing one of her “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” jackets or a guy wearing one of her buckskin vests. Like a mother who intimately knows what her own child looks like, Elaine instantly recognizes one of her creations.

“I use lots of historic designs and draw on books to research designs and how people wore clothes. The bulk of what I do is classic Western. Things like fringed jackets or princess-line vests with a Western yoke in front or back plus antler, silver, or buffalo-nickel buttons,” says Elaine, who works with tra­ditional hued brown and tan hides as well as lush jewel-toned red and blue hides, all sourced within the United States. Over the years, she has created her wearable art out of deer, moose, elk, and eland hides as well as buffalo and antelope hides.

“It’s very challenging yet satisfying to transfer hides into a garment shaped to fit somebody. You have to buy the hides in sets because you can’t duplicate the color,” notes Elaine. “As soon as I see a set of hides, I know immediately what I want to do with them, though it may be years before I get around to making that item.”

When someone custom-orders a garment, Elaine takes precise measurements and copious notes so she can sew it to specification. About the only thing that skews the finished product is when a husband wants to surprise his wife with one of Elaine’s vests, dresses, or jackets.“I could write a book about all the men who think their wife is a size 10,” remarks Elaine. “That may have been her size when they met, but it’s often not her size any longer.”

Given Montana’s reputation as a rough-n’tumble state with strong ties to its ranching and rodeo past, you might expect Elaine to have many compatriots around Big Sky country, who are also known for authentic buckskin creations. While some custom rendezvous-style clothing and rodeo wear are available, finished leatherwork like what Elaine creates is scarce. The reality is that fine quality handcrafted leather garments, and the people who fashion them, have gone the way of the grizzly – they are around but are not as plentiful as in the past.

That makes Elaine one of the few buckskin clothiers in the West, as well as one of the most accomplished. A fact that did not go unnoticed by the Montana Arts Council when they chose their first round of 11 inductees to the Montana Circle of American Masters in Visual Folk and Traditional Arts in 2009. Ac­cording to the Arts Council, Elaine was chosen as a buckskin tailor, “in recognition of artistic excellence for a body of work and contribution to the preserva­tion of the state’s cultural heritage.”

“I was really elated when I won the award,” remembers Elaine. “It was one way for me to earn recognition for what I do. There are no ‘tailoring societies’ out there to honor work in my field.”

As noted by the Arts Council, Elaine has diligently spread the buckskin gospel by teaching students and by giving talks at Kalispell area schools. She educates her acolytes about the history of hide and fur clothing as well, explaining that they are the oldest garments in the world and the way that indigenous peoples clothed themselves. “Creating buckskin garments is one of many art forms in the West but it can only be taught one on one, not in groups like saddle or boot making. People have to learn how to shop for and work with hides then how to turn them into products, ”says Elaine. “Making purses is a relatively easy way to get started. Clothing is more difficult. It has to fit a real body. But when you can size people correctly and make something outrageously nice that really becomes them and fits them, that makes it all worthwhile. That’s the art form.”

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