Comfort Zones: textiles in the Canadian landscape

By Marijke Kerkhoven

Comfort Zones: textiles in the Canadian landscape is an exploration of the responses of Canadians to their country - of the dialogue between the challenges of the Canadian weather and landscape, and the ingenuity and traditions of its people. The objects in the exhibition reflect not only the search for personal comfort in a country that can be at once generous and harsh, but also the need for beauty and spiritual comfort. At the same time, the exhibition explores the dialogues between the many different traditions that have contributed to Canada's development.

Many different people have made this land their home. The First Nations successfully developed ways to enjoy the abundance of the various regions and to overcome the shortcomings. People from overseas were attracted by the bounty of fish and furs, and the land became, for a while, a battleground for the struggle of two European colonial powers - the French and the English. One of the results of this conflict was the creation of Canada as a nation.

Thus, Canada today is more diverse than ever; its population includes the First Nations and their descendants, the descendants of pioneering settlers as well those seeking stability from the global upheavals of the 20th century. Each group brings its own set of strategies to cope with (and make the most of) the challenges of the land.

An obvious example is the clothing of the Inuit. To thrive in one of the world's harshest climates, the Inuit have developed a clothing system based on the principle of containing warm air. The garments are loose, allowing warm air to flow upward along the body, and they have few openings to let warm air escape. The excellent insulating qualities of caribou fur is used to its full extent when worn in double layers; with the fur facing inward next to the skin, under another layer with the fur facing outward.

European pioneers who settled in places such as the Maritimes, on the borders of the St. Lawrence River, and in the forests of Ontario responded to the demands of the climate and the shortage of yard goods by carefully recycling every piece of fabric. In Newfoundland, each bed in a home without central heating needed at least six, if not eight blankets or quilts in the midst of the winter.1 And this need for warmth was equally necessary along the shores of the St. Lawrence River as it was in the forests of Ontario and on the prairies. Each area developed its own set of techniques to create mats to place on bare floors and beautiful bed coverings for warmth at night.

Many responses to the landscape and the climate of each region are recognized as symbols of the nation, and we have come to respect and even love them. We admire the aumautik, the roomy woman's parka with the large hood, which accommodates the needs of a baby as well as its mother. We love the soft comfortable deerskin moccasins made by natives across the continent. We like snowshoes, the handy alternative to skis for navigating deep snow. And the tradition of hand-woven home furnishings from Quebec has inspired our own home decorations.

While it is fascinating to observe these things made by others, it is more interesting to see what happens in the zones where people with one set of traditions interact with people from other cultures. Just as the boundary space between two ecological areas is filled with the flora and fauna of both, there is an abundance of ideas and technology in the area where people from different cultures meet and interact; here, new hybrids are created as prototypes for new artifacts. It is from such interactions that in 1987, a mother on Belcher Island, Nunavut madekamiks from a combination of commercially marketed rubber boots, recycled denim and seal fur. Although these boots were not guaranteed waterproof above the ankles (at the seam line), they kept her son's feet dry in slushy, melting ice.

Another product of cultural interaction is a fundraising duvet cover made by Mennonites in Yarrow, British Columbia. At a quick glance it seems to be a quilt top. The cloth consists of blocks with cheerfully embroidered flowers around Germanic names. The style of the decorated blocks reflects the offerings of popular needlecraft magazines of the 1940s. Yet a close look reveals that the edges are finished and that there are six buttons along the bottom corresponding to six neat buttonholes in the backing. Unlike the fundraising quilts made by women's auxiliaries of Anglo-Saxon groups, this duvet cover is made for, and by people, who traditionally kept themselves warm using down bedding instead of quilts. An object like this can only be the result of Mennonite women in a small town visiting the bazaars of other churches and meeting members of other auxiliary groups.

Some of these “hybrids” have become so well established they are iconographic. The dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is a good example. The red jacket shows the influence of the British military while the hats are a direct descendant of the Montana peaked hats that were made available to the RCMP from the U.S. Cavalry. Our “Mountie” uniform is an allegory of Canada itself as a transitory zone between British and American cultures.

The early fur trade provided some of the most productive interactions. The exchange of ideas and technology was established before any European set foot on this continent, as were trade routes and exchange ceremonies. Trade was not merely an exchange of goods: it was an exchange of gifts with which the parties honoured each other. The traded goods enhanced status, such as a tobacco pouch given as a token of honour to a member of another tribe. European traders conformed to these trading customs; during the early fur trade, they decorated garments and moccasins with brightly coloured wool, satin ribbons and shiny beads to enhance their status.

The ceinture fléchée is another hybrid that has the quality of an icon. These multi-coloured braided sashes from Quebec have finely worked precursors in similar items from the late 18th century, which the Ojibwa, Iroquois and others in the Great Lakes area made, most likely from unravelled trade cloth. It is suggested that female relatives of Quebec fur traders saw the native sashes (often incorporating fine beads) and were shown how they were made.2 The voyageurs needed the sturdy long sashes not only to tie their coats snug against the cold, but also to support their lower torso when carrying heavy loads on a portage. Soon, the colourful sashes woven in L'Assomption and other places around Montreal became the badge of a voyageur. Braiding these ceintures fléchées for the Hudson's Bay Company was a thriving cottage industry until the company found a less expensive supplier in England.

At the turn of the new millennium, Canadians have more opportunities than ever to interact with people of different cultural backgrounds. The number of “transfer zones” has multiplied, especially in the larger cities. Much has been made of the recent inclusion of the blue turban in the uniform of the RCMP. But there are other, much quieter interactions: the face veil of a Muslim woman on the Toronto subway is kept securely in place with a strip of Velcro, and Hutterite brides shopping for perfect navy blue or dark purple polyester damask dress fabric in the little sari shops of northeast Calgary. The potential for the creation of new hybrids increases continually; these in turn will become icons of Canada.


  1. G.L. Pocius: Textile Traditions of East Newfoundland, National Museum of Man Mercury Series, Canadian Centre of Folk Culture Study Paper #29, Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1976; pp. 33.
  2. Dorothy K. Burnham: The Comfortable Arts: Traditional Spinning and Weaving in Canada, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, 1981; pp 36.

© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada