I have traveled across the country, from coast to coast, and I’m always amazed at how people get themselves tangled up in their voyageur sashes. Also called a ceinture fléchée, the sash was worn by members of the North West and Hudson Bay companies during the fur trade. Today the sash remains an important cultural symbol for the Metis people. From its practical past to its decorative uses today, properly wearing a sash is simple—but how to tie it depends on your purpose.
The history and significance of the voyageur sash
For the voyageur paddling and portaging from ice-out to ice-in, the sash was a functional item to help cope with the physical stress of the job. For this reason, the voyageur would wear a sash that was at least eight inches wide and 12 feet long.
To wear this sash with historical accuracy, the sash should sit high on the waist, set between the top of the pelvis and the bottom of the ribs. Wrap the sash around the belly two to three times. The sash should be tight to support the lower back—voyageurs regularly tumped hundreds of pounds of furs and supplies down portage trails and along shorelines. When the sash is tied in this way it acts like a rudimentary weightlifting belt, and a voyageur’s back can take many more hours of paddling and lift gear with less chance of injury. Just don’t tell your chiropractor I said so.
Once wrapped tightly around the waist, the sash is tied securely by the fringe in front of the body. The remainder of the long fringe should hang between the legs, but it should not hang lower than the knees. Tie it tightly with a simple double knot. Sorry, no fancy knot work here.
In most paintings that depict voyageurs and in photos of modern recreationists, you’ll see the sash worn in a decorative style. This style is tied to show off its beauty during dancing or for a special event rather than for supportive purposes.
When worn in this way, the wearer wants the length of the sash to fall alongside his body to flash its colors. Only wrap the sash once around the waist. When an eight-foot-long sash is worn this way, much drapes down over the knees, with fringes brushing the ankles that bounce with the movement of dance.
5 unlikely uses for a voyageur sash
- Holding your capot (jacket) closed, and as a belt to hold up loose-fitting pants.
- A storage pocket for snacks, especially cheeses.
- The sash can provide extra support and hold in a hernia during weight-bearing exercises—not doctor recommended.
- Multi-purpose rope.
- Record keeping. Since many voyageurs were illiterate and couldn’t keep written records, they might tie five knots in the fringe of their sash to indicate a $5 debt owed. Or, a trapper would tell his family he’d be back in 10 days, and then tie 10 knots in his fringe and remove one every day. When his knots were done it was time to come back home.
Miguel Vielfaure is the owner of Étchiboy, a Manitoba-based company that weaves sashes, and a regular at the annual Festival du Voyageur.
Chiropractors would have hated them. | Feature photo: Goh Iromoto/Ontario Tourism