Tufting is a decorative art that uses small bunches of dyed animal hair to create sculpted designs. The artform was created through a cultural mash up of European embroidery and traditional materials.
Each artwork is done slowly by a patient and skilled artist using a hand drawn design, so no two tuftings are the same.
In long ago times, Athapaskan people used twisted moose and caribou hair for decoration. But the art of tufting is considered a relatively new artform. Tufting blends European influences and traditional materials to create completely unique works of art.
Historical sources generally agree that the process was developed by Métis women living in Fort Providence, NWT in the 1920s.
In one account, Boniface Lafferty was inspired after watching a French nun work on a needle punch piece. In this technique, similar to rug hooking, wool is “punched” through a backing using a special needle.
In other stories Lafferty and a friend, Katherine Bouvier, were sewing with nuns stationed in the community when they ran out of thread. As a substitute, Bouvier dyed some long caribou neck guard hairs the same colour as the thread they were using. They began experimenting with the hairs and the new artform came into being.
Either way it began, the nuns were fascinated by the new invention and began teaching it to Métis and Dene children in northern schools.
Over the years, the artform spread to other places across Canada’s North and today it is practiced by artists in all three territories.
Tuftings are commonly made from moose hair or caribou hair. Artists use different types of hair for different purposes. For example, the longer hairs from the animal’s throat area can be used to make long, smooth lines.
It’s easier to create tufts with hairs that are longer and coarser. That means carefully selecting hairs from certain parts of the animal — from the neck, the rump or along the centre of the animal’s back.
Each artist has their own methods for making their unique pieces.
The hairs are cut or plucked from a hide, washed and brushed out. Then, they’re sorted by length, size and colour.
Although some artists prefer to work with naturally coloured hairs, many choose to collect the hairs into bunches and dye them vibrant colours. In long ago times, artists used natural dyes like plants or berries to colour the hairs, today commercial dyes are more common.
Artists draw designs out on a backing material that could be made from fabric, birch bark or hide. Then lay a bunch of about 20 hairs on the material. Then, sew up through the backing material, catch the hairs in a loop and sew back down through the backing material to tightly fix them into place. Each group of hairs are knotted tightly, so they stand straight up or straight out on an angle. Once enough hairs are knotted closely together it creates a “tuft”.
The line work on a piece, generally seen in stems or borders, is done by gathering and sewing down smaller tufts. Some artists add a slight twist to the hairs to create a bead-like effect.
Throughout the process some artists keep the hairs damp, so they don’t dry out and crack. This is commonly done by keeping them wrapped up in a wet cloth or even in the mouth of the artist while they work.
Tufting is slow and skilled work. One single flower can take six to eight hours to complete, and generally designs are composed of many flowers connected by intricate stem work.
Once there are enough hairs sewn into place, they’re trimmed using a pair of small sewing scissors to create depth and texture in the designs.
As in beadwork, the most common tufting designs are flowers and leaves.
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