‘Dream come true’ for First Nations artist as Winnipeg fabric store commissions Indigenous designs

Colourful fabric patterns that weave culture with creativity are hitting the shelves of a Winnipeg store.

Marshall Fabrics is commissioning Indigenous artists to create designs to be carried in its stores. A new pattern by a different artist will be released every six months in limited edition rollouts.

“It feels like a dream come true,” said Manitoba-born artist Carrie Okemaw, the first artist to have her creation printed on the 500-metre-long bolts of cotton.

“I need to see it to believe it, ’cause I’m still in a state of shock,” said the self-taught designer, who has ties to both Manto Sipi Cree Nation and the Ojibway community of Berens River First Nation in eastern Manitoba.

The Winnipeg-based fabric store rolled out the new line of material on Wednesday. The manager of its King Edward Street store, Beth Syrnyk, says she’s already received orders from customers in B.C., Nova Scotia and the United States.

Beth Syrnyk, manager of Marshall Fabrics on King Edward Street in Winnipeg, holds up the fabric Okemaw designed. She wanted Indigenous artist to be represented in the patterns the store sells. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“Everybody really likes it. It’s bright and it’s colourful and it’s happy, and it’s got the strawberries on it, which is very important in the Indigenous culture,” she said.

The shop had been looking for an Indigenous artist to team up with for years, said Syrnyk.

“We do sell a lot of Indigenous prints in our store, but a lot of the companies that are making Indigenous prints are not using Indigenous artists,” she said.

“I thought it was important that they started having representation in the fabrics we are selling.”

Being part of the process

Meanwhile, Okemaw said she had been trying to find a company that could print her designs.

“We were kind of looking for each other at the same time,” said Okemaw, who now lives in Edmonton.

The 39-year-old has been beading and sewing powwow regalia for over 20 years, but could never quite find what she was looking for in stores.

“I saw very few fabrics that were part of who I was,” said Okemaw, who admits she’s picky about the fabrics she chooses for her regalia.

“The colours, the shapes, even down to how big the flowers were — so one day I just thought about making my own fabric.”

Okemaw’s design comes in six different colours, with each limited to a 500-metre bolt of fabric. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Okemaw says she feels proud to be the first artist featured in Marshall Fabrics’ new commissions. Her work is a unique blend of both her Cree and Ojibway culture, she said, but is also very personal and inspired by the women in her family.

“It truly gives me pleasure to practise what my late grandmother and my late auntie have taught me,” said Okemaw.

“I feel so proud that I can carry on what … [they] showed me at a young age.”

‘It’s inspiring,’ shopper says

Tasha Adams from Migisi Sahgaigan (also known as Eagle Lake) in northwestern Ontario was in Winnipeg on Thursday to check out the new array of fabrics. 

“I figured I’d better come over here and check it before it’s all gone.”

Tasha Adams, left, was in Marshall Fabrics on Thursday to buy some of the fabric to use in making woodland dancer regalia for her son, Carter Perrault. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Adams purchased some of Okemaw’s fabric to make woodland dancer regalia for her son.

“I like the old-school original prints of Cree and Ojibway flowers, I like the strawberries on it. I like all the mixture of the colours in it. It reminds me very much of our culture,” said Adams.

“Ten years ago when I made regalia with my mom, this wasn’t anywhere in any store.” 

Adams said it made her feel proud to see the designs featured prominently at the front of the store.

“It’s encouraging. It’s inspiring.”

Syrnyk says a big portion of the store’s clientele is Indigenous, and she’s happy to be offering makers like Adams a product that is authentic.

Limited edition prints

Okemaw’s design will come in six different colours, with only 500 metres of each printed to keep the patterns unique and special, Syrnyk said.

That will also mean “people who are making things have something new to work with all the time, so they are not working with the same fabric over and over again,” she said.

The patterns will also be carried in the Marshall Fabrics’ stores in Edmonton and Lethbridge, Alta.

Okemaw designed this regalia for her daughter. The artist has been beading and sewing for more than 20 years and always wanted to print her own designs. (Submitted by Carrie Okemaw)

The store is still looking for more artists to work with and hopes to have the next release available sometime late this year.

Okemaw wants other artists to know you don’t have to be a professional to take the leap into creating a digital design.

“You just have to have a creative spirit, a creative soul, and a willingness to take risks.”