The ceinture fléchée above is up for auction at Skinner, Inc. on May 12, 2021.
Image courtesy of Skinner, Inc. www.skinnerinc.com.
The Arrowhead Scarf at Harvard
I was still wearing that scarf off-and-on when I happened to visit Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. There, in a display case, was a scarf that looked exactly like mine: scarlet arrowheads running lengthwise down the middle and with lightning bolts of brilliant color on either side. According to the object’s label, it was an arrowhead sash, made of wool and worn by native peoples (Iroquois? Huron?) in what was, in the 1700s, the wilderness of Eastern Canada.
That was the turning point. I no longer felt free to bundle up in the scarf and trudge through the slush, knowing how easily I might leave it behind on the subway or a coat rack. For a while, the piece became a wall-hanging in my living room. Eventually, I packed it up in tissue paper and tucked it way back in a cool, dark closet.
Then I forgot all about it. That is, until I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Ottawa. (It was, by coincidence, January.) Perusing a gallery of Canadian art, I spotted a familiar sight. There, in a painting by Paul Kane, two fur trappers were standing in a snowy field. Each had a red sash wrapped around his waist. In Canada, I learned, these sashes are called ceinture fléchée.
I left with a postcard reproduction of the painting. I later learned that the painting had sold at auction in 2002 for $5.1 million Canadian—at that time, the highest price ever paid for a Canadian painting—and was donated to AGO.
Paul Kane. Scene in the Northwest — Portrait of John Henry Lefroy around 1845–1846.
Image courtesy of The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario
Back home, I found a few articles that explained more about the sashes’ mixed heritage. There’s some disagreement among ethnologists and historians about who first wore them. Some believe Canada’s First Peoples introduced them to the French settlers (called voyageurs) and fur-trappers. Many other authorities (especially those in Quebec) argue persuasively it was the other way around. In either case, European visitors to eastern Canada were quite taken with the locals’ colorful garb. In 1806, one British observer noted that five out of six habitants wore such a sash.
Here you see the intricate detail in the most traditional design, the arrowhead.
The most traditional design for ceinture fléchée is the arrowhead. Red triangles run end-to-end down the middle, flanked on either side by zig-zags of other colors. This pattern is sometimes referred to as L’Assomption sash, named for a town where many were made. Some other styles feature zig-zags, diamonds, or squares.
As trappers and explorers from Quebec pushed farther west, the red sashes followed. To meet the growing demand, they were machine-woven in England and distributed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Nevertheless, the traditional way of making them—literally by hand, using finger weaving—continued in parts of Eastern Canada. When the fur trade petered out towards the end of the 19th Century, the making and wearing of ceinture disappeared, although some families preserved them as heirlooms.
How Ceinture Fléchée Became Treasures
What makes them special? Their history is one reason. In the Province of Quebec, arrowhead sashes have taken on iconic status. They are a proud emblem of Quebec’s history and symbols of a social identity, much as cowboy hats are in Texas. Monique Genest LeBlanc, an expert on ceinture fléchée, has identified them in the paintings of no fewer than 28 Canadian artists.
Henri Julien, L‘Étoffe du Pays.
Source: Wiki Commons
Meanwhile, the Métis, an Indigenous group in Canada who descend from the intermarriage of French settlers and Native Peoples, also claim the sashes as emblems of their unique identify and wear them today for ceremonial occasions.
Aside from their cultural and historical importance, the sashes are desirable for another reason: their drop-dead good looks. That scarlet color must have stood out against the snowy wilderness like a flock of cardinals. The dimensions of ceinture fléchées are also unusual. The sash itself is often nine or more feet long, with an added foot or two of fringe at either end. They’re also narrow, about five-to-nine inches wide. These proportions meant they could be wrapped several times around the wearer’s waist and secured with a knot of fringe.
The Popularization of Ceinture Fléchées
Over the years, I’ve became something of an afficianado of antique arrowhead sashes. But it wasn’t until I look a vacation to Quebec City that I discovered exactly how popular they’ve become.
Reproductions hang all over city’s oldest section. Knock-offs are sold as souvenirs at Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival, Manitoba’s Festival du Voyageur, and other celebrations of French heritage. Many of these come from China and are made of polyester. Compared to the antique versions, their colors seem a little garish.
Sashes made by Étchiboy.
The Métis also produce Canadian-made ceinture fléchée under the Étchiboy label. These are replicas of the one worn by political hero Louis Riel, a Métis who led an 1870 rebellion against the Canadian government. (He is regarded as a patriot and martyr by many Métis. A statue—which depicts him wearing a ceinture fléchée—stand s in downtown Winnepeg.)
Experts can sometimes tell the age and provenance of a sash by the kind of dye used (natural or chemical), and the color, fiber, and weaving technique. Would-be buyers should choose carefully. Something described as an antique ceinture is often, in fact, a vintage or even contemporary version. These more recently made items have sold at prices ranging from $10 to $100 in recent years, according to the Worthpoint® Price Guide data.
A “vintage” Medis Indian trapper sash sold for $59.97 in Jan. 2021.
Authentic ceinture fléchée are highly sought-after. They hang in museums across Canada and in U.S. collections such as the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of International Folk Art, RISD Museum of Art, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard. From time to time, they do come up at auction, as they will at Skinner in May.
Recent selling prices for antique ceinture fléchée can go into hundreds of dollars, sometimes even thousands.
With mixed feelings, I recently decided to part with mine after enjoying it for more than 25 years. I’ll never again feel comfortable wearing it, yet it deserves to be seen and admired. My grandmother, an antiques dealer as well as a collector, would certainly understand. It’s had a good long run since it was first worn by a voyageur, and Métis, or a native American, somewhere in the late 18th to late 19th Century.
Mary Young is a Boston-based researcher and writer. She vividly remembers her first trash-picking adventures in grade school. She was hooked and has been a hunter and collector ever since.
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