Ancient Kentucky Fabrics

by A. Gwynn Henderson
Kentucky Archaeological Survey

From Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass
by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb
Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, Lexington, KY

There is no question that Adena people made fabrics. Archaeologists have recovered small pieces from some earthen burial mounds in central Kentucky.

Adena fabric-making started with yarn. Weavers probably made most of it from fibers found in the stems of plants, like milkweed and rattlesnake master, and in the inner bark of trees, like cedar and pawpaw.

Adena weavers likely made the yarn by twisting the processed fibers on their thighs. They could produce very high-quality yarns barely thicker than 1/32nd of an inch. These are as fine as the flax yarns Egyptians used to make linen. Adena weavers also twisted the downy feathers of water birds into some yarns. This would have created a finished fabric that was soft and warm.

Adena fabrics were not strings haphazardly strung together. They were structurally complex. Adena weavers did not use looms. Instead, they made fabrics in many different ways using only their hands. Twining and plaiting were the most common methods.

They produced twined fabrics by twisting together two or more horizontal yarns around a vertical yarn. A common twined fabric consisted of twisted horizontal yarns around alternating pairs of vertical yarns. This created a diagonal pattern.

Examples of Fabrics and Weaving Techniques from Adena Mounds
(Dragoo 1963: Figure 21).

In plaiting, they passed horizontal and vertical yarns over and under each other in a regular pattern. In a common form of plaiting, the yarns passed over and under each other at a 55-degree angle. From these fabrics, Adena weavers could have made a host of items to suit any need: bags, sashes, mantles (similar to a large shawl), skirts, and blankets.

To create designs, they wove chevrons and diagonal lines into their fabrics. But they also could have used yarns of different colors to create the same effect.

Making Adena fabrics, like this example showing red and yellow dyed bands, took a lot of work and time.
Image from Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass. Copyright 2007 Kentucky Heritage Council.

To dye yarn, Adena weavers soaked the yarn in urine mixed with parts of certain plants. Urine contains a chemical that fixed or made the color permanent. Plants they used for dyes could have included roots, nut hulls, seed skins, fruit, bark, or leaves. Even stems of plants – like sumac, bedstraw, or black walnut – served as sources of dyes. The resulting red, pink, yellow-gold, green, tan, brown, and black yarns, when woven together, would have produced vibrant fabrics.

On certain occasions, all members of an Adena lineage/clan or social group might have worn clothing of a particular color or with a certain design pattern that was uniquely their own. Some people, like shamans or lineage/clan leaders, might have earned the right to wear special fabrics, colors, or designs.

For more information about the Adena peoples, go to the Living Archaeology Weekend website (, click on Education, then Content and Lessons, then LAW Educational Content and Lessons, and scroll down to Woodland Indians Resources. Download the booklet: Adena: Woodland Period Moundbuilders of the Bluegrass, by A. Gwynn Henderson and Eric J. Schlarb. Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Education Series Number 9, 2007, Lexington, KY. Or go to your public library and checkout the booklet via Kentucky Libraries Unbound.


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