Listen to the threads

In the blue house in Old St. Boniface lives an internationally acclaimed artisan. Her name is Carol James and she is a finger weaver.

Ms. James weaves the Métis sashes that many Manitobans recognize from the Festival du Voyageur. This could have been the end of the story but when you know that she gives workshops all over the United States, Europe and South America you may begin to sit up and notice.

A traditional sash woven by Carol James. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

Carol is internationally known as a folk artist, a teacher, and imparter of the spirit of the sash. These sashes were used as a belt to hold up pants, to secure the blanket coat in winter and as a weightlifter belt to prevent hernias when lifting the heavy bales of furs and during portages. Like many things of practical, everyday use, the sashes have not lasted in very good condition.

Carol has been interested in pre-industrial fabric making for more than 30 years. She spins her own yarn from a fluffy basket of raw wool. She then knits or crochets a sweater or a touque or she finger weaves the ceinture fléchée (sash) for her family and friends.

It was when people asked her if the colours she used were traditional colours she then did the research about what the Métis from Manitoba would have had available to them and incorporated it into her work. She wants to be as authentic as possible.

The sash has no warp and woof threads which are created on a loom so it is not really weaving but finger twisting. The ceinture fléchée or arrow belt is worked using fingers while the threads are secured on a stick or some sort of cross piece.

Carol’s sash making sparked an interest from the Manitoba Museum. She created several samples of various patterns for the Museum. Some from existing but very fragile sashes and some from pictures.

The curator of the Hudson Bay Collection, Amelia Fay, and the curator of Anthropology, Maureen Matthews, can’t say enough good things about Carol and her work. They both can be quoted by the same expression, “We love Carol.”

There are plans for the Museum to expand and create a space dedicated to Indigenous and Métis cultures exclusively. Then many of the artifacts, like the Métis sashes will no longer be in drawers in giant storage rooms but on display.

People who want to learn this art can read Carol’s book, “Fingerweaving Untangled: an illustrated beginner’s guide including detailed patterns and common mistakes” (Carol James and Janet Lafrance). People who learn better from seeing the technique can access Carol’s video here:

Even more interesting is to see some people who have taken classes from Carol meet on Tuesday evening at The Forks to continue their finger weaving and get support from each other. Check it out and you can meet these weavers and if Carol isn’t off to some other part of the world she will be there too.

Carol also does another kind of finger weaving called Sprang. This is an ancient method of finger weaving and goes back to the Bronze Age (1500B.C,).

The home textile workers in all aspects of cloth were principally lost to the industrial revolution. The carding of the wool, spinning and dying, and then weaving became a hallmark of the modern mechanical textile industry. The workers were replaced by machines and the finger weavers lost their art.

Weaving workshops at The Forks. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

In the strange way of history in the Victorian age,  the Europeans were discovering archaeology. The tombs in Scandinavia and also in Egypt were being uncovered and mummies were exposed. It was discovered that many of these mummies had hats to help them to the after life and that these hats were made of Sprang weaving.

At that time (1890-1910), a woman from Holland, Elizabeth Van Reesema, revived the Sprang finger weaving technique. Both Carol James and Elizabeth Van Reesema have a natural facility for textile weaving.

Mummy hat made by Carol James using Sprang technique. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

Carol discovered very early on in her life that all things wool made sense to her. For example at about age 10, she was adapting knitting patterns for mittens into gloves.

Her response to general amazement at this is, “We all have our gifts. It is too bad that some of our gifts are not valued in our society and education system.”

Carol James references photos of artifacts in order to create replicas using the Sprang technique. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

It is at this time in the conversation that Carol changes from the kind of low key, meditative, natural teacher to a passionate advocate not only of artisanship but of children and how we learn.

In this YouTube video that is linked here, Carol tells us that she used an existing Sprang sash from the George Washington Collection in Mount Vernon to learn the Sprang technique. When asked how she did that her answer was to quote Elizabeth Van Reesema: “I listened to the threads.”

Indeed, Carol hears what the threads have to say. Her experience and expertise has also helped her to do what in modern terms is called reverse engineering.

Replica George Washington sash created by Carol James using the Sprang technique. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

Carol is an international expert on finger weaving. There are a few people who are cultural anthropologists who know the academics of this art, but Carol is known throughout North America, Europe, and now Asia as a person who actually weaves. She is someone who researches threads and colours and technique so that the product is as authentic as it can be in modern times.

A few years ago, Carol went to do a workshop in Arizona at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. There she found a Sprang shirt. It is called the Tonto shirt because it was found on the Tonto Pueblo. Carol made a replica of the Tonto shirt using thread spun by an Indigenous wool and thread expert, Louie Garcia.

Tonto shirt finger woven by Carol James. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

The spiritual aspect of the finger weaving is brought home when Louie Garcia went to the tattered original Tonto shirt and asked permission to use his spun threads, their colours, and that Carol use them in her work. You could call it a prayer, you could call it meditation, you could call it a need for comfort in passing a technique on to the future. Whatever you call it, Carol takes it seriously and respectfully and authentically.

There is a meditative aspect to this weaving. In fact, Carol spent a few months finger weaving in the lobby of the St. Boniface Hospital and found that staff, patients, and visitors would come to watch, to be in a quiet place and to felt calmer.

In case this isn’t enough of a story for you, there is more. There is a Red River gumbo connection. Really it is the bottom of the former Lake Agassiz area which includes Manitoba and North Dakota.

The thick, river clay gumbo that is so great for making bricks is not so great for making pottery. The thick clay is too heavy to allow a wide mouthed, thinner sided bowl or vessel. The Indigenous people of the area used a Sprang bag-like structure to give support to the clay and enable the potter to create a wide-mouthed lighter bowl that was more useful and lighter to carry.

The Manitoba Museum has, also buried in the archives, examples of replicas that Carol has made.

Carol James wants to use the fingerweaving of the Métis sashes as a contribution to truth and reconciliation. More people can learn about the threads from her and pass it down the generations. It is an historic gift and an action that is doable today.

You are invited to go to The Forks and see what is going on, talk to the weavers (men and women) and if Carol isn’t on another continent she will be there too; just a woman who lives with her family as she has done for 30 years in the blue house in North St. Boniface.

Weaving workshop at The Forks. /PHOTO: Susan Cameron

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