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The Métis Sash

Picture of the most recognized 'Métis' sash, even though this one is actually a québec carnivale sash, courtesy of éthiboy. Picture of the most recognized 'Métis' sash, even though this one is actually a québec carnivale sash, courtesy of éthiboy.
Image courtesy of Étchiboy.com, October 2017

Cloth as such varied in its availability in the americas before europeans began to show up and eventually include it in their trade offerings. In much of central america and the southernmost parts of north america, cloth was relatively common and the foundation of the general population's clothing. In other areas, especially to the north, fur and leather predominated due to climate and the resulting animals and plants making their home in those regions. Contrary to later claims that Indigenous people wore their leather clothing until it was a greasy mess and fell apart, not only was it cleaned regularly, leather tanned and prepared to be sewn into clothing using Indigenous methods feels startlingly similar to cloth. It is definitely thicker, yet supple, resistant to dirt, and tough enough to stand up to long days outside. And while a person might use simple leather thongs to tie on their leggings and tuck their shirt into their waist on an ordinary day, for ceremony and feasting that called for full regalia, something more elaborate was called for. In the northeast, the leather thongs might be replaced with colourful fingerwoven bands, smaller garters for the legs and a lengthy sash to tie around the waist. And if a sash too faded and worn for regalia use reappeared as a tump line for helping carry heavy loads, that was only reasonable considering all the work necessary to make it.

Gathering the fibres to wind the threads to weave into bands and sashes in the first place was no small job. For a sash, the length of each thread should be at least twice as long as the final product, allowing for fringes at both ends. A very narrow sash needs at least 50-60 strands, considerably more than the 10-20 for garters and other small work. Ideally a sash calls for at least 100. So not only does that require considerable starting material, before any weaving the threads need to be dyed. Fingerweaving itself is a challenge all its own, because it does not involve the use of a loom. Instead, all the weaver needs is their two hands and a pair of sticks to hold the threads under tension while weaving. In effect, all the threads spend some time as warp and weft, and a variety of patterns including arrows, chevrons, and lightning bolts can all be worked in fingerweaving, along with such standbys as basic stripes.

Europeans were quite impressed by the brightly coloured fingerwoven work they observed in the regalia of First Nations representatives. The colour combinations and designs were specific to family or clan, and sashes were counted among the most prestigious gifts. So it didn't take long before the fur trade companies were stocking cheaper, mass produced sashes among their goods, hoping to cash in on the desirability and prestige of the items as gifts before destroying their reputation with shoddy work. By roughly 1780, a parish in the town of l'assomption in new france had specialized in production of the "ceinture fléchée," literally "arrow belt" for the fur trade market. This didn't work out as a longterm employment strategy, because the hudson's bay company in particular was always seeking to drive down the cost of its stock by any possible means. Within a few decades machine woven sashes threw the l'assomption fingerweavers out of work. But no one in the fur trade was too worried about this impacting their sales, since both First Nations and many european newcomers were still interested in purchasing them, not least because this was still the pre-pocket era.

"Pre-pocket" is a mildly deceptive term, because they were far from unknown. A small pouch is simply a free pocket with a drawstring top, and aprons with pockets were common wear for both men and women all over europe. The change to pockets being permanently sewn into clothing didn't happen until the later 19th century, and as the various writers who endlessly discussed the meaning and symbolism of Hilary Clinton's lack of pockets noted, pockets make a statement. Lacking pockets, people need either belt pouches or some kind of bag that they carry with them at all times. Women achieved this by literally tying on their pockets under their main garments, as Barbara Bruman and Ariane Fennetaux's excellent book The Pocket: A Hidden History of Woman's Lives details for women in england. Or, if it's the fur trade era, a person purchased a well made sash at least twice the length of their hands wide. A sash folded in half before being tied on provided plenty of space to carry small items such as watches and tobacco pouches, as well as such important personal tools as knives, compasses, and firearms. Europeans were fond of using sashes to tie their winter coats shut. Yet as time went on, europeans began to notice people on the northern plains who wore their sashes differently, and had very specific colour and length preferences. Furthermore, some of their sashes definitely didn't come from the fur trade companies.

These curious people included men who like their First Nations counterparts, used their sashes to hold up their leggings or european-style pants. Not until the late 1800s did women or men in this group wear winter coats that opened in the front, opting instead for coats that slipped over the head. They all wore leather or stroud leggings closely embroidered with silk thread or beads or both. The eagle-eyed and experienced outsider would notice immediately that similar in style though these leggings were to those worn by Anishinabeg further south and east, the designs were quite different. But the sash stood out most of all, because they were always visible and applied to many uses, including as impromptu towel, the already mentioned tump line, even a canoe bailer when woven tight enough and waxed. The fringes could be pillaged for thread to repair clothing or to twist into string. The predominant colour of these sashes was and is red, with accents provided in blue, white, yellow, and green. Today these versatile belts are better known in canada as Métis sashes, superseding the once common label 'l'assomption sash.'

Circa 1871 picture of Charles and Joseph Riel, younger brothers of Louis Riel, at st. boniface, manitoba. Image cropped from a scan of library and archives canada item  e011156655, itself made available through flickr and subsequently wikimedia commons. Circa 1871 picture of Charles and Joseph Riel, younger brothers of Louis Riel, at st. boniface, manitoba. Image cropped from a scan of library and archives canada item  e011156655, itself made available through flickr and subsequently wikimedia commons.
Circa 1871 picture of Charles and Joseph Riel, younger brothers of Louis Riel, at st. boniface, manitoba. Image cropped from a scan of library and archives canada item e011156655, itself made available through flickr and subsequently wikimedia commons.

Through the difficult years between 1885 and 1960, few Métis had the opportunity to make or wear sashes. Endemic poverty had rendered them inaccessible. There was no time to make them, especially once worsted yarn, which is wound more tightly than the fuzzier yarn most of us are familiar with, rose in price and dropped in availability. What few woven sashes a person might see were found mostly in québec among visitors to the winter carnival, and of course famously tied around the waist of the bonhomme de neige. By the 1990s, not only were Métis economic conditions improved, the Métis Nation began reasserting its cultural practices again, including wearing the sash as part of formal regalia and presenting it as an honour. At first appearing mainly in mass produced, short scarf sizes, the full width and length sash has made a full comeback and is now produced and/or imported by several companies, as well as being handmade within Métis communities.

Quite a bit of heavy weather has been made of how Métis do or don't wear their sashes compared to others who wear them as part of their regalia or daily wear in Indigenous or french canadian contexts. More often than not, present day accounts of which side it was worn on and the rest are all about teasing outsiders and not much else. That acknowledged, there are some practicalities of sash wearing perhaps less commonly understood at the moment, because so few people wear longer jackets regularly in north america and other areas affected by european cultures. To get a better sense of what this entails, it is especially useful to watch the granada television production of the Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett. Brett takes full advantage of the victorian-era dress to mark Holmes' character, but for the purposes of this article, the more important point is how his movements reveal the ways long jackets and cloaks were managed. A key point is that outdoor and formally worn coats and cloaks were either removed before sitting down, or the tails carefully moved to the side so as not to sit on them. This makes good sense, only a careless person would risk putting semi-permanent wrinkles in this key piece of clothing if they could help it. In the case of sashes, especially practical, worsted sashes of the sort worn by First Nations and Métis, they would often have been thick and uncomfortable to sit on as well. Therefore logically enough, for seated photographs, the ends of the sash would typically be flipped around onto the lap.

Sharp-eyed readers may promptly point out that the Riel brothers in the photograph above, especially Charles Riel on the left with what looks like the knot of his sash showing, seem to wear their sashes tied in the middle and set in roughly today's belt buckle position. Unfortunately, one picture cannot confirm general practice, and it is true that a person could easily move the sash knot to the left or right in order to make it easier to pull the sash ends tidily out of the way to sit down and allow them to dangle neatly for a formal photograph. Of course, the question of how sashes are worn or shifted around depending on the circumstances (e.g. at work, during ceremony, for a photograph, etc.) would be a whole other discussion.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 09, 2024 15:56:02