Communication Through Clothing

Ribbon Appliqué Wearing Blanket
Artist not known, Osage
early 1900s

In this lesson, students will explore the symbols, patterns, and colors that are important to the Osage people. Students will create a t-shirt design that expresses information about their own culture and personality, and reflect upon messages communicated by their clothing design.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • identify designs and symbols important to the Osage people;
  • explain how clothing reveals information about cultures; and
  • create a t-shirt design using symbols and colors to express information about themselves.


  1. Warm-up: Distribute a piece of drawing paper to each student and have them write their name in the center of the paper in big block letters. Then ask the students to rotate the paper 180 degrees and draw a picture integrating the upside down letters into their artistic creation.
  2. Display the image of the Osage Ribbon Appliqué Wearing Blanket and ask the students what they see. What designs and symbols are present? What types of materials are used? What do they think this blanket was used for? Point out that the Osage and other American Indians often include symbols of things that are important to them—such as arrows, lightning, and horses—on their blankets. Also explain that this blanket was an article of clothing. It was worn by dancers during a special ceremony, and wearing blankets are still used in Osage dances today. See the About the Art section for more information.
  3. Invite students to think about the types of clothes they wear today, specifically t-shirts. How are t-shirts and the Osage blanket similar and different? Have students think of the different t-shirt designs they have seen. Which one was the most interesting? Most colorful? Silliest? Discuss how the clothes we wear tell something about us and what is important to us, similar to the way the symbols on the blanket are important to the Osage. What kinds of symbols do students see on t-shirts today? What might these symbols tell us about the people wearing them?
  4. Give each student a piece of cardstock that already has the outline of a blank t-shirt on it. Have students design t-shirts that display symbols and communicate things that are important to them. Encourage them to use colors and patterns that are meaningful to them as well.
  5. Choose three to five students to present their t-shirt designs to the class.
  6. Be sure to display all of the students’ work around the classroom. Allow five to ten minutes for students to spend observing the designs. Then encourage them to share something new they learned about another classmate or to ask a classmate a question about his or her design.


  • Colored markers, colored pencils, or watercolor paints and brushes
  • Drawing paper for each student
  • Lined paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • Outline of a t-shirt (copy onto cardstock for students)
  • About the Art section on the Ribbon Appliqué Wearing Blanket (included with the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the blanket for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
  • Become familiar with United States historical eras, groups, individuals and themes
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

Ribbon Appliqué Wearing Blanket

early 1900s

59 in x 70.75 in.

Native arts acquisition funds, 1953.131

Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.

About the Artist

A woman from the Osage tribe sewed this blanket in the early 1900s for a special dance called the I-loⁿ-shka [ee-LONSH-kah]. European explorers entered the Osage territory in the early 1600s and the Osage began trading with the French for things like wool cloth and silk ribbon—materials that were used in the making of this blanket. Ribbonworkers are female and the art form is learned from female relatives. Each Osage ribbonworker creates her own patterns. To make the silk decorations, the artist used a template to trace a design on colored ribbon, then she cut and folded the ribbon to form stylized arrowhead shapes and horses. She then stitched each shape onto a second colored ribbon, which she sewed by hand onto the wool blanket. Once complete, the blanket would have been worn by an Osage woman over her shoulders or as a skirt. Today, artists continue to produce ribbonwork, but they might use sewing machines to construct the patterns. These blankets are still worn today on ceremonial occasions.

What Inspired It

Every Osage who dances the I-loⁿ-shka, both male and female, wears clothing decorated with ribbonwork. Blankets like this one are often given as gifts at the dance. When worn during the I-loⁿ-shka dance, the blanket moves and sways with the dancer, surrounding him or her with a sense of history and tradition. Symbols and use of colors may vary between clans or even families. Horses, like those on this blanket, often symbolize prosperity and may also indicate a family’s name.

I-loⁿ-shka means “playground of the eldest son.” An eldest son is chosen keeper of the drum for a year or more. The drum-keeper chooses committee members who are knowledgeable in tribal traditions to plan the dance. His family gives gifts to committee members, pays for the dance, and prepares food for participants. Dances are held outdoors and dancers circle around a drum, moving in a counterclockwise direction. In the early days, only warriors danced the I-loⁿ-shka. Today all men and boys, and some women, dance around the singers and the drum.



The horses and border are made from silk ribbons. After the French Revolution of 1789, silk had become unpopular in Europe and the French silk industry turned to America as a market for the unwanted ribbons.

Wool Cloth

The Osage acquired wool cloth through trade with Europeans. Wool came in different colors including red, black, navy, and white.


Horses symbolize prosperity and can also indicate family names. Notice the tiny yellow beads that outline the silk horses.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.