The creamy-white dress, its edges cut to imitate lace and decorated with a pattern of holes and beads, hangs in Snyder’s Kalispell studio – a ready example of her dexterity as a tailor and devotion to her work as a buckskin clothier.
“I learned a lot about antelope hides when I made this,” she said, holding the dress. “It takes years to learn to figure out these materials. It’s not just taking a few lessons; it’s amassing a body of work.”
This month, the state will recognize Snyder and three other state artists – a saddle maker, a doll maker and a blacksmith – by inducting them into Montana's Circle of American Masters. A distinguished award from the Montana Arts Council, the circle aims to showcase state heritage by recognizing visual folk artists who have created a significant body of work. As honorees, Snyder and the others will teach their art through demonstrations and workshops, participate in state festivals and share their work on the MAC Web site.
While certainly a testament to Snyder’s skill, the award is also evidence of her prolific collection of works and knowledge of the history and tradition of her trade.
“That was a time where you got one bought outfit,” she said. “If you wanted something more to wear to school, you learned to make it yourself.”
Snyder earned a degree in clothing design and fashion merchandising from Ohio State University in 1972, and then worked two years as an assistant buyer at one of the oldest and most upscale New York City clothiers, Lord and Taylor.
But Snyder, a self-described “hippie,” decided she needed a change from the city, loaded up her Volkswagon bus and headed west. She eventually found her home – and, unwittingly, her career and life’s passion – in Kalispell.
“My friend pulled out all these deer hides, and asked, ‘If you’re such a good tailor, why don’t you make me a shirt out of these?’” she said.
Thirty-three years later, Snyder has amassed an astounding collection of custom leather pieces, turning more than 2,000 hides into some 1,000 vests, 300 jackets and hundreds of purses, dresses or shirts.
Creating buckskin clothing is largely a process of trial and error, born out of stubborn persistence. Each hide is unique and demanding. There are differences in tanning and dyeing, and tricks to properly stretching. Some have bullet holes, others marks from skinning, parasites or accidents over the course of the animal’s life.
“I’ve had two hides where I could tell the deer had survived an attack from a mountain lion earlier in its life,” Snyder said.
Adding to the difficulty is the fact that there are few patterns for this largely extinct type of work. Snyder makes her own by collecting books and magazines that detail Native American clothing styles, early frontier fashion and leather history. Pictures of soldiers, frontiersmen and fur traders from the 1800s hang around her studio.
“I used to plan a pattern in my head and then go for a walk and figure out how to do it,” Snyder said. “That was a good strategy.”
The result is that each piece Snyder creates is an individual. Detailing like beads and embroidery turn imperfections in the hide into one-of-a-kind designs. And because of the time and attention that goes into each piece – about three months for a jacket – Snyder’s work is akin to wearable art.
“So few people do this anymore,” she said. “It’s very demanding. I have the training and I like the challenge, but many don’t.”
Elaine Snyder’s studio number is (406) 755-0767. Her work is available locally at Montana House in Apgar Village, at Kindred Spirits at Glacier Park International Airport or by special order.