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The Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association created employment for women on Minnesota reservations

Native lace makers earned good pay, but the organization held stereotypical and negative views of them and excluded them from leadership roles.

historic photo of women holding lace articles
Sybil Carter with instructors and lace makers at Leech Lake, ca.1896.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When Sybil Carter started her first lace-making classes at White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe, she set the stage for a major economic enterprise. In 1904, friends of Carter organized the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association to help ship and market lace made by women on reservations to East Coast consumers. The association provided a good source of income to Native women. It also, however, held stereotypical and negative views of them and excluded them from leadership roles.

Sybil Carter was born in Louisiana in 1842 and worked as a teacher before becoming an Episcopal missionary. She was invited by Bishop Henry Whipple to teach lace-making to Ojibwe women on the White Earth Reservation. In 1889 or 1890, Carter opened her first lace-making school in a small cabin at White Earth. The project was very successful. The next year, schools were opened at the Red Lake and Leech Lake Reservations. By 1893, Carter supervised nine lace-making schools. The church continued to develop the lace-making project and expanded to reservations across the nation.

The lace industry’s expansion was easy to explain. Women working in reservation lace-making schools typically earned between fifty cents and one dollar a day, a relatively good income for the time. The lace work could be completed in a woman’s spare time and didn’t require her to relocate to a city. Sales were also good. The lace produced was recognized for its quality. It earned a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and won prizes at other national and international competitions.

The lace that was produced on reservations was mostly bobbin (or pillow) lace, but classes also taught techniques for needlepoint and tape lace. Occasionally the lace designs featured stereotypical “Indian” imagery, including canoes, birds, and tipis. However, these designs were likely created by Carter and the other non-Native lace teachers. Most of the lace was indistinguishable from other lace produced in the period.

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At first, Carter personally oversaw most of the early sales of lace that was made at reservation schools. She paid women for their lace-work and sold it to her network of friends in the East. In 1904, Carter’s friends organized the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association to buy materials, hire teachers, and collect finished items from reservation schools. The group managed a New York City shop. It also arranged for private lace sales in the homes of wealthy women in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. In 1918 alone, the Association sold 1,000 lace items as well as over 4,000 yards of lace edging.

Sybil Carter felt that the lace-making schools were an essential part of missionary efforts. She spoke often about the dignity of hard work and wage earning. Teaching Ojibwe women to produce lace, she argued, gave them a reliable source of income and sense of pride and accomplishment.

Yet Carter had a patronizing view of Native women. She believed that making lace would make them “cleaner” and encourage them to take better care of their homes. Carter hoped it would make women abandon traditional patterns of Nataive life. In speeches she said that the lace project had taken Ojibwe women who were “nothing but bundles of dirty rags” and turned them into clean, hardworking lacemakers. Native women had long traditions of needlework design, but Carter wanted them to abandon their “dirty, ugly handcrafts” in favor of white lace.

Native women were also excluded from leadership positions in the lace association. These administrative positions were highly paid. This, in turn, led some to accuse the association of underpaying women for their work.

When Carter died in 1908, the Lace Association lost her social connections. As years wore on, fashions changed and handmade lace became less popular. Still, the Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association did not disband until 1926. In some areas, lace-making organizations continued for years even after the association dissolved.

The Sybil Carter Indian Lace Association left a mixed legacy in the communities of women it employed. Although it offered paid work to hundreds of women on Ojibwe and Dakota reservations in Minnesota, it was also patronizing toward those women.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.