In a programme inaugurated in 2020, the Conseil québécois du patrimoine vivant (Québec Council for Living Heritage) awarded the title of Master of Living Traditions to five “outstanding artists and craftspeople who master a practice or technique passed down from generation to generation” (PDF). Among them was a flécheuse—someone who practices the art of finger-braiding ceintures fléchées: Hélène Blouin. I wondered: What does the path to becoming a Master of Living Tradition look like? I reached out to Hélène to find out.
For her, it all started with the simple desire to own a ceinture fléchée. Having a specific vision in mind for a variation on the traditional pattern that she wanted to make for herself, she signed up for a class in 2007. Little did she know that she would get far more than a sash out of it!
Hélène quickly discovered that there was a lot more to fléché than merely learning how to manipulate the threads to create the desired patterns. She had found in her teacher, Marie-Berthe Guibault-Lanoix, a mentor who was keen to pass on her knowledge of both the history of the art, as well as the techniques needed to create authentic sashes that come as close as possible to the high level of quality found in the ones crafted in the L’Assomption area in the 19th century. Hélène recalls that when it turned out to involve learning how to use a spinning wheel to add plying twist to yarn in order to make it suitable for braiding, and later an unexpected deep dive into natural dyeing to create the colours traditionally used, she simply went with the flow.
Being steeped in Mrs. Guibault-Lanoix’s approach and philosophy only served to fuel Hélène’s passion for the art, and she soon felt that she was part of something that was bigger than herself. Thanks to her mentor’s teaching, she can credit by name those who came before her in a lineage that can be traced all the way back to Charlotte Hébert, a flécheuse who was born in 1798, and that’s a gift she finds especially moving.
It was in 2016 that Hélène Blouin became an intermediate link in that chain of transmission. Teaching hadn’t been part of her plan, but her mentor wisely worked to ensure the chain wouldn’t break and spent years encouraging her to teach, as well. Hélène says, once again: “I went with the flow.” She finds pleasure in the challenge of figuring out how to help each individual student grasp the intricacies of the technique, and she enjoys passing down the craft as it has always been shared, from one hand to another. Transmission of the oral tradition, which carries a specific vocabulary, also feels essential to her.
While the newly minted Master of Living Tradition cannot imagine ever being done with learning herself, she has nevertheless reached a high level of expertise, as evidenced by the acquisition of one of her sashes by the Musée des métiers d’arts du Québec to add to their collection. Another significant landmark on her journey was when she won a contest called La Trade, organized by the Association des artisans de ceinture fléchée de Lanaudière. The winning piece was destined to a very special purpose: The association wanted a ceinture fléchée they could make available for anyone to borrow and wear to special events, and Hélène Blouin is proud to have played a part in making this piece of our heritage more accessible.
Even as Hélène knows she could spend the rest of her life exploring the artistic possibilities afforded by the technique, she has chosen to prioritize, for a few years, transmission of the work. As a Master of Living Tradition, part of her prize came in the form of support for her to develop a personal project; she’s using it as an opportunity to contribute to the advancement of the craft. Noticing that many flécheurs across Québec don’t have access to a mentor, she’s decided to create a self-evaluation tool that will guide practitioners through their fléché journey by helping them identify the skills they have mastered, those that need refining, and their next steps along the way. Although this involves a degree of renunciation with regards to her own practice, she harbours no regrets since she believes that any course of action—creating, teaching, publishing—is a valuable way to preserve our heritage. More would be possible, though, were she granted her dearest wish: to devote herself to fléché full-time.
At several points in our conversation, Hélène Blouin described her fléché career as a story of going with the flow. From my vantage point, however, I rather see a woman who may not have chosen the precise trajectory of the river but who, having stepped in the canoe, never stopped paddling enthusiastically—to the greater benefit of our living heritage.