Whether you call it the ceinture fléchée, the L’Assomption sash or simply an arrow sash, these woven accessories are undeniably handy and historical pieces of winter gear.
Ceinture fléchée come in many different forms and styles. A common theme among the designs is the arrow pattern, where the sash gets its name in French, (fléchée means arrow). But double lightning bolts (as are popular on L’Assomption sashes) and other patterns are also available. While sashes can range in colour and design, they also range in size — My longest sash is over two meters in length and is over 30 cm in width, while my shortest sashes, used as garters for tightening my pants around my boots, are only 8 centimeters wide and 25 centimeters long.
The exact origins of the sash have been lost through history. We do know that the sash was a staple of dress among the early inhabitants of New France, and was also popular among aboriginal people. Colorful sashes were often bartered during the Fur Trade. The sash became so popular, in fact, that during the height of the Fur Trade the town of L’Assomption started a cottage industry with women finger weaving sashes to supply the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As the Fur Trade grew, so did the popularity of the sash, spreading west from New France with the voyageurs. As these voyageurs and aboriginal women begin to marry, their children became the Metis. And, as the Metis nation was born, the sashes became part of their tradition, adopted from both sets of their parents. The sash is still an important symbol for the Metis.
The colors of the sash tell a story, showing the culture of the person who created it, as the patterns and styles of sashes were passed down from mothers to daughters. Thus a community could identity a stranger by the pattern and color of their sash.
Sashes were popular not only because of their brilliant colors and patterns, but also for how functional they were.
The sash was most often around a coat, trapping warm air inside near the wearer and preventing drafts while outside in the cold Canadian winters. It also worked for storage, as a knife, fire pouch or other personal item could be tucked between the sash and the wearer’s body. Sashes tied tightly around the user’s waist also helped support the back, which was especially handy for voyageurs, who often had to lift heavy loads along the trade routes. The sash was also often used as a tumpline, to allow the user to carry a heavy load on their back.
In the event of an emergency the long fringed threads could be used for sewing repair jobs, and if a person was injured the sash could be used as a tourniquet or to splint a broken bone. Beyond this, the sash could be used as a sling or rope.
The sash is still worn by the Metis people today, where it is a symbol of cultural identity that has endured throughout the ages. For example, sashes are often awarded as a thank you or to honor outstanding cultural, political and social contributions to the Metis Nation.
I have a variety of sashes that I cherish and wear to this day. They have all been woven by hand; some were gifts made for me, while others I have purchased. Every time I go snowshoeing, however, I am sure to wear a sash.
I am fond of my sashes in part because of a lower back injury. While I am not carrying heavy packs of fur or trade goods like the voyageurs did, a sash tied tightly around my body offers wonderful support for my lower back.
I am also comforted by the fact that the sash can be used in an emergency. The closest I ever had was when I was running the dogsled on a narrow bush trail. The team took a corner pretty fast and I slammed the sled into a tree. I used my sash to lash a branch to my sled, so I could still steer it back to the truck.
Besides being a proud part of Canadian history, the sash also helps keep me warm. Winters here on the Canadian prairie are long and cold, and spells of -40 are not uncommon. Despite layers of high-tech coats and base systems, I still find that a simple sash, tied tightly around my waist, keeps me warm on the worst of winter’s days. There is nothing as comforting as cinching your sash tight against a strong north wind!