As our world globalizes, it seems that our various cultures converge towards a centrist amalgam of customs. Worse, through the vaulted hands of capitalism, traditions that were once culture become, instead, commodities. Objects for purchase, devoid of the experience and tradition that make them special, become totems that we espouse to say "Look at me, I'm part of this great thing!".
Commodification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes certain experiences and inclusions more accessible. In the outdoor world, this means an increase in access to the wilderness, and with it the strength of numbers to advocate for protection and access. It also means an increase in uneducated visitors and some spoilage of the wilderness we have taken for granted.
But what of experience? It is certainly easier (if more costly) to book an all-inclusive backcountry stay with a five-star chef. But doesn't it seem like such experiences are more about the destination than the journey? Gratification without delay?
The recent spring edition of Canoe Roots magazine contained an anemic article touting the unlikely uses of the Voyageur sash. It really got me thinking about the watering down of traditions and the commodification of culture.
The Ceinture Fléchée, or Voyageur Sash (Assomption Sash), is an icon of the Voyageur era that has become a totem of Franco Canadien culture. Aside from its splendour as a colourful accessory, it was functional, used to tie closed a coat at a time when other fasteners were uncommon. Among the Voyageurs and porters, it may also have found use as something of a weight belt, as the tight weave of the wool makes for a very strong fabric; there is also evidence that the sash would be used as a tumpline to help carry the heavy burden of packed furs.
Today, the sash has little place on a canoe trip, and instead finds itself a simple fashion accessory for a few short weeks each year.
The Ceinture Fléchée represents a rich tradition of the Voyageur, the Métis and the families that supported them at home as they explored the far reaches of Canada. Much more than a functional fashion symbol, it represents an art form either conceived of by French Canadian settlers or acquired from local indigenous communities.
Artisans at work - "Fingerweaving Evening" @ the Forks Market
The traditional craft of making the Ceinture Fléchée is called fingerweaving. It is a simple method of weaving strands together to form cloth. The artisan first selects strands of wool long enough to wrap around the recipient's body (after accounting for the length lost in weaving), and gathers enough of them to meet the required width. The strands are tied together and separated by a dowel or stick, each strand alternating in front, or behind. One strand is drawn horizontally across the others, and then the remaining strands are woven in front and behind of it, depending on the pattern.
The process, while simple, is painstaking and tedious. For a sash of average width, it can take the artisan an average of one-hour to complete one inch of the length of the final product. In addition to the work of weaving the strands together, there is the added complexity of having to regularly unravel the loosely tangled weave that forms on the unfinished end of the sash.
The practice and craft of fingerweaving took place on the homestead. Mothers and daughters took to the craft, much like knitting. Handwoven Ceinture Fléchées were well made, and long lasting heirlooms often passed down through many generations.
Through practice and experience, a number of beautiful patterns arose - from the standard arrowhead (Fléchée) to lightning-bolts, chevrons and so forth.
A family heirloom - This Ceinture Fléchée hangs on my Uncle Peter's wall in Vancouver. It has been passed down through his family, generation after generation. This is representative of an early loom-woven sash.
For early Canadians, Ceintures Fléchées became status symbols as well, so much so that an industry formed around them, where they made their first foray from tradition to commodity. In some cases, this meant establishing workforces of fingerweavers (such as the community of Assomption, Quebec); but ultimately lead to the introduction of cheap, loom-woven sashes in 1875, roughly 105 years after the Ceinture Fléchée was first introduced.
Today, traditional fingerweaving remains a niche craft practiced by a small group of artisans in Canada and the United States (My wife, Éveline among them); while commercial versions abound, represented by operations such as Etchiboy (found at Festival du Voyageur), JC Ricard, and others.
Here, in Winnipeg, the preeminent Carol James and her protégés regularly host a "Fingerweaving Evening" every Tuesday at the Forks Market - an opportunity for artisans to meet collectively and work on their creations while discussing techniques both new and old; discovering, rediscovering and inventing patterns.
Together, they foster and preserve the culture and traditions of the Ceinture Fléchée.
The sashes purveyed by Etchiboy
Meanwhile, those mass-produced, loom woven sashes have become the ubiquitous emblem of the Festival-du-Voyageur-goer. Far removed from their fingerwoven brethren, these sashes are scarcely recognizable as Ceinture Fléchée. While keeping with traditional colour schemes, their weaving process precludes traditional patterns, resulting in what I would describe as "a pixelated approximation" of the distinct motif that makes a Ceinture Fléchée a Ceinture Fléchée.
These sashes represent a tenuous link to culture and tradition, reduced to a cultural commodity that says "I am Franco Manitobain".
There's much to say about that statement and how important it is to the cultural identity of the community here. These sashes have certainly made this traditional garb accessible to consumers. And it's no wonder. If you can't put in the 200+ hours to make one for yourself, a fingerwoven sash will run you between $600 & $5,000 depending on the size, materials and complexity. A Festival du Voyageur souvenir will set you back the equivalent of a bottle of Caribou (that's the alcohol, not a play on Newfoundland's bottled moose ).