Artists Gone Wild: Carol James | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
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Artists Gone Wild: Carol James Photo: Thomas Fricke

The weaver

The Voyageur’s most distinctive marker, the finely woven ceintures fleche, is a traditional art form kept alive by a handful of fingerweavers today, including Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Carol James.

These decorative sashes, worn by fur traders of The North West Company, were versatile tools for wilderness travelers, used as rope, pouches and for warmth. Some historians also believe they were used as core support to prevent hernias while portaging heavy loads.

Far more passionate about this textile technique than the canoeing-related history of the sash, James particularly loves the simplicity of fingerweaving—it’s done entirely by hand and requires nothing other than the yarn to weave and a hook on the wall.

James can weave about an inch per hour. The average finger woven sash takes about 60 hours to complete. Some sashes use as many as 286 individual strands. Depending on the type of yarn used, these one-of-a-kind pieces can sell for well over $500 per foot.

Her clients tend to be collectors and heritage connoisseurs. “The people who purchase these sashes clearly value the culture and history, and that type of traditional handcrafted work,” says James. She notes that there are machine-made replicas woven overseas that sell for just $20 to $30.

A former nurse, for three years James worked in the Artist in Healthcare program at the St-Boniface General Hospital in Winnipeg. She was stationed in the lobby where she practiced her art.

“The hospital was stunned at the response. People would come and just sit and watch,” she says. “Weaving creates an atmosphere of calm and harmony in a place where those feelings are hard to come by.” The meditative benefits James claims extend to the viewer, she says.

Fingerweaving helped her connect with many of the patients. “The sash plays a role in the heritage of three cultures that were represented in the hospital: the First Nations, the French and the Métis.”

James has always been interested in textiles, and could embroider and crochet before kindergarten. It was her French Canadian fiancé who introduced her to the ceintures fleche. He asked her to weave him one for their wedding to represent his heritage. James was excited to learn the new technique.

After a family move to Winnipeg in 1990, James began volunteering at Fort Gibraltar, where the annual Festival du Voyageur takes place, and fingerweaving in her role as a re-enactor there.

“I was the only one who either knew fingerweaving or was willing to attempt it again,” she says. She provided tutorials to teach other volunteers and was later asked to teach classes and create learning materials. That provided the inspiration to eventually publish her first book, Fingerweaving Untangled in 2008—the only English manual of its kind—and become a fulltime weaver.

James acknowledges learning the eye-hand coordination of fingerweaving requires a bit of commitment. “It’s like learning how to drive a stick shift, people say, ‘I can’t do it.’ But once you’ve done it a number of times, you do it without thinking. That’s when it can become relaxing and meditative,” she says.

As proof, James adds that she teaches basic fingerweaving techniques to grade school classes. “All the children end up with a bracelet by the end of class, which proves that anyone can do it. It just takes a bit of time to sit down and finger it out.”

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Find Carol James online at sashweaver.com

Screen_Shot_2015-07-08_at_11.54.42_AM.pngThis article first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Canoeroots Magazine in our Artists Gone Wild feature. For more great content, click here and subscribe to Canoeroot’s print and digital editions, or click here to read the current issue.

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