The Evolving Landscapes of Fléché: From Its Early Days to Its Hopeful Future

24 March 2021

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As a lifelong lover of fibre and textile arts, I have always known that the ceinture fléchée is an important part of Québécois heritage, as our contribution to the world’s repertoire of textiles. The fléché technique is a creation of descendants of French settlers established in Québec, and it is indeed unique: Wherever else this specific form of finger-braiding has been found, it can be traced back to its origins here.

That, however, basically covered the extent of my knowledge regarding this iconic textile piece and fibre-art technique, so I was eager to dig further into it.

A Practical Purpose

The winter attire of habitants, French settlers who farmed the land, evolved as they adapted to local weather conditions, using the tools and materials available to them. Originally finger-braided using homespun yarn and later made of worsted wool yarn imported from England, the ceinture fléchée is a wide woolen sash. Wound twice around the waist, it served to hold the fronts of one’s winter coat overlapped shut, keeping the upper body warm without hindering the gait, and presented the added benefit of protecting one’s back from injury when performing physical labour.

Though utilitarian in nature, the belt was as colourful as it was ubiquitous. In his account of his 1806 travels in Lower Canada, Englishman John Lambert estimated that five out of six habitants wore “a sash of various colours.”

While sashes had been worn for at least a few decades before the time of Lambert’s account, the first known documentation of the word flèche (arrow) used to describe the iconic pattern was written in 1798. It seems, then, that it was in the last quarter of the 18th century that makers played around with variations on the basic finger-braided chevron pattern, which is known across many cultures worldwide, and created the new technique that produces the unmistakable arrowhead motif.

It’s also around that time that another important piece of the story would play out.

Image description: Two L'Assomption-style sashes finger-braid, with a book about the history of the ceinture fléchée in the L'Assomption area.

Two L’Assomption-style sashes finger-braided in the old way by flécheuse Hélène Blouin, with a book about the history of the ceinture fléchée in the L’Assomption area. On either side of their central arrowhead, we see two of the traditional pattern variations: the sash on the left shows the diamond-shaped pattern called flèches nettes or flammes (literally clean-cut arrows or flames), while the one on the right has the zigzag-shaped motif called flèches or éclairs (arrows or thunderbolts).
Photo credit Hélène Blouin.

L’Assomption Sashes

If the precise point of origin of the technical innovation that led to fléché remains unknown, the historical record does suddenly reveal a wealth of information about the sashes made from the very beginning of the 19th century in and around L’Assomption. What happened at that moment, in that village located in the region of Lanaudière, northeast of Montréal? A significant shift, namely that of going from domestic to commercial production.

The North West Company often recruited in that area the men who would become known as voyageurs in the fur trade. Of course, those voyageurs took their ceinture fléchée with them when they travelled west, and given the interest with which that textile piece was met, the company soon realized its potential as a trade item. So, back in L’Assomption, the North West Company (and later the Hudson’s Bay Company, after the two merged) placed orders for those arrow-patterned sashes, usually through local merchants acting as intermediaries. Given the commercial need for a standardized product, a specific motif in set colours was developed and came to be known as the L’Assomption style of ceinture fléchée. Its distribution through all trade posts explains why this style is so commonly found over such a wide area.

Standardization and the increase in the number of sashes produced led to refinements to the technique, resulting in very high-quality sashes, and the decades from 1830 to 1880 are considered to be the golden age of the production in the area of L’Assomption. The subsequent decline is attributed to a variety of factors, among which is the increasingly fierce competition the authentic finger-braided ceintures fléchées faced from a less expensive, mechanically woven imitation mass-produced in England for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

From the Practical to the Symbolic

As fashions evolved and urbanization brought about lifestyle changes, symbolic uses for the sashes replaced the practical ones, and the ceinture fléchée became an object of prestige and an identity marker. With habitants no longer needing it to tie their winter coat shut, the upper classes adopted it as a luxury item. As flécheuse Marie-Berthe Guibault-Lanoix puts it, men would demonstrate the thickness of their wallet by the width of their sash! In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various snowshoe clubs each had their own distinctive arrow-patterned sash identifying their members. The ceinture fléchée also became associated with French-Canadian nationalism when it was worn by the Patriotes during the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-1838.

Image description: Close up of two hands holding threads, working on a ceinture fléchée.

A close-up view of a traditional ceinture fléchée being crafted by Hélène Blouin. Each thread alternately plays the role of warp and weft, at times going vertically down the piece and at times taking a ninety degree turn to travel partway across the piece. A particularity of the fléché technique is that there are threads switching roles at every colour change within each pick; this makes the technique impossible to reproduce mechanically.

Additionally, the nature of the fléché technique means that the threads in each pass travel diagonally relative to the centre line, creating the points visible at the end of the piece. This is one of the ways an authentic finger-braided ceinture fléchée can be told apart from sashes woven on a loom, which have warp and weft perpendicular to each other.
Photo credit Laurence Messier Moreau.

The art of fléché was the subject of a few revival efforts at various points during the 20th century, with varying degrees of success. One such effort was the initiative of flécheuse Flore-Ida Chevalier (often referred to as Mrs. Phidias Robert) who, realizing how scarce the traditional knowledge she possessed was becoming, started offering demonstrations and classes in the late 1960s. With growing numbers of practitioners, an association of fléché craftspeople was created, how-to books were published, and learning opportunities multiplied. Official recognition of the significance of this textile art came in 2016, when the government of Québec added the fléché technique to its Cultural Heritage Registry as an “element of intangible cultural heritage.”

Nowadays, we see the traditional sash tied around the waist of Bonhomme Carnaval, Québec City’s most famous ambassador, and worn by members of folkloric dance troupes and in traditional music circles. Historical reenactment enthusiasts are also among those who join the ranks of flécheurs to create this piece of their garb.

There are also contemporary fléché artists who are going beyond the sash. Some have come up with practical innovations, making fléché pieces that are easy to wear in our modern lives, such as the fléché bow tie, an original idea of flécheuse Monique Picard. Others have come up with technical or artistic innovations, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the medium. Textile artist Catherine Lessard, for instance, puts her own twist on the traditional technique, crafting contemporary art pieces filled with layers of meaning.

The fléché landscape of the 21st century may look nothing like that of the 19th, but this traditional art is alive and may well have surprises in store for us. There seems to be a surge of interest in this part of our heritage, and brilliant and devoted craftspeople are breathing life back into it.

I now know a lot more than I did, far more than could fit here, but for each piece of information I’ve unearthed, I came up with dozens of questions that remain unanswered. Fléché artists have called for more research to be done on the subject, and I’m joining my voice to theirs: It would be wonderful to learn what else can be discovered about the origins of this technique, especially about early domestic production for personal use, as well as its history in regions outside the L’Assomption area.

Image description: Two fleché bowties.

A contemporary use of the fléché technique: two bow ties crafted by Hélène Blouin, after an original idea of flécheuse Monique Picard.
Photo credit Hélène Blouin.

Whether or not we ever learn more about the history of fléché, I also want to be among those who are creating its present and future. I’ll keep exploring with my fingers, both through braiding and writing, because I want to become a flécheuse myself, and I’ll make sure to document the process as I go so as not to leave more holes in the story.

For more on fléché, read our profile on flécheuse Hélène Blouin.

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Copyright © Josiane Richer dit Laflèche except as indicated.
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About Josiane Richer dit Laflèche

Text and textile are the main threads that have run throughout Josiane Richer dit Laflèche’s life and they, along with neurodivergency and disability (ME/CFS), have had the biggest influence on the shape it has taken. A linguistic anthropologist by training, she works with words––both hers and those of others––in various ways, including in her capacity as the agent of writer and storyteller Éric Gauthier. The rest of her time is divided between reading, spinning, sewing, weaving, knitting… and learning other fibre and textile arts! Josiane is currently channeling her interest in language and culture into crafting a podcast that aims to provide listening practice to people who are learning French or who want to maintain their knowledge of that language. Learn more at yourfrenchspeakingfriend.com. She lives in the N’dakinna, the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Waban-Aki (Abenaki) Nation, more specifically in Kchi Nikitawtegwak—the name given by the W8banakiak to the city otherwise known as Sherbrooke, Québec.

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