For Stephanie Crowchild, sewing is a healing practice, a process for revitalization and a way of reclaiming her identity as an Indigenous woman after a period of personal darkness.
Ms. Crowchild, who is Cree and Tsuut’ina and lives in the Tsuut’ina Nation outside Calgary, found herself at rock bottom in 2019. After the deaths of her grandparents, who were heavily involved in raising her, she began struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction as she tried to suppress her grief. At the same time, she was dealing with the criminal justice and child welfare systems.
“I just lost everything. My family, myself,” Ms. Crowchild said.
And then, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, she found a new path toward healing: sewing, something she hadn’t done since she was a teenager.
Ms. Crowchild began creating original designs. Before long she had founded her own company, Stephanie Eagletail Designs, through which she now showcases her ribbon skirts, beading and Indigenous regalia. But what she is best known for are her Pendleton coats.
The coats are typically made out of wool Pendleton blankets, which feature Indigenous designs. In the past year, Ms. Crowchild has gained widespread attention for creating similar coats using a very particular kind of material: Hudson’s Bay Co.’s distinctive multistriped point blankets.
Those blankets carry negative connotations among many Indigenous communities in Canada, for whom they symbolize colonization, death and the spread of disease through the whisky trade in the 19th century, when the Hudson’s Bay Co. was the dominant economic force in large parts of Canada.
Ms. Crowchild said her use of the blankets is part of an effort to decolonize their history while honouring her late grandfather. As a child of residential school survivors and a carrier of intergenerational trauma, she added, sewing has helped her recover.
She made her first Pendleton coat when she was 17 years old. She had wanted one to wear to powwows, where they were must-have fashion. Instead of buying her one, her mother and aunt taught her how to make a coat without a pattern.
“I remembered every detail,” said Ms. Crowchild, who is now 33. She made three or four coats, then stopped. When she was 18 years old, she gave birth to her eldest daughter, Asayda. During her 20s, three more children followed and she became a stay-at-home mother.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020, Ms. Crowchild picked up sewing as a way to deal with the isolation. She posted a few of her creations on social media and people responded, asking to order her designs.
The inspiration to create a coat from a Hudson’s Bay blanket came from a Bay blanket coat her grandfather had owned. When he passed away, she found more of the blankets among his possessions.
Ms. Crowchild knew Hudson’s Bay for its dark history with Indigenous people, and had always felt resentment toward the company. She decided to use one of her grandfather’s Bay blankets to create a statement piece.
While sewing the coat, she was careful not to make any mistakes, but as she was cutting the collar she nicked her finger and got blood on the material. Ms. Crowchild looked down at her bloody finger and the blanket and thought she had ruined the piece. But as she kept looking, her feelings started to change.
“I started getting this feeling of like, this is what the Hudson’s Bay represented, was this economic genocide that they created among First Nation communities, and bloodshed,” Ms. Crowchild said.
She decided to spill her own blood all over the bottom of the coat. Then she added imitation elk teeth to the trim. Ms. Crowchild said the process of making the coat felt like her own personal form of decolonization.
“It felt good,” she said. “It was kind of like this powerful piece that literally was like blood, sweat and tears, prayer.”
The coat has become Ms. Crowchild’s most sentimental piece.
Since she created that first Bay blanket coat, other people have approached her wanting help creating their own. In March, a friend from Maskwacis First Nation asked her if she could teach a class on making the coats to a group of local women.
Now, a few months later, Ms. Crowchild is teaching classes across North America. Many of her pupils are using Bay blankets that belonged to their own grandparents.
“For a lot of people it’s sentimental, because it’s our late grandparents or great-grandparents,” Ms. Crowchild said. “It’s sentimental, but also decolonizing it and making it our own.”
Having now come out of the dark period in her life, sober and without a criminal record, Ms. Crowchild has begun sharing her story in her classes, which she believes is a way of helping others heal.
In 2020, while she was building her design company, Ms. Crowchild founded the Eagletail House Society, a non-profit addiction centre in Tsuut’ina that uses traditional healing practices, such as sweat lodges, to help others battling addiction. The centre is located in Ms. Crowchild’s grandparents’ house, and is named in their honour.
She now balances her time between her family, the centre, teaching classes and sewing her own designs. And she has formed a new relationship with Hudson’s Bay.
In May, she attended a Hudson’s Bay event in Tsuut’ina with her husband, Gilbert, and daughter Asayda, all wearing matching Bay blanket coats. At the event, Ms. Crowchild presented her work and shared her story with Tiffany Bourré, a divisional vice-president at the company.
Ms. Crowchild said she is in the midst of discussions with Hudson’s Bay about a partnership. For now, she is preparing for New York Fashion Week, in September, where she will showcase 10 new coats, including a few made of Bay blankets.
“This generation is the one that is going to be reclaiming our identities back from what was essentially taken through residential schools, the genocides and everything that we’ve dealt with,” Ms. Crowchild said.
“It’s a beautiful awakening is what it feels like.”
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Stephanie Crowchild is making Pendleton coats with Hudson's Bay blankets. While the coats are in the same style as Pendleton coats, which Ms. Crowchild also makes, the Hudson's Bay coats use HBC blankets.