Centuries-old caribou coats inspire conversations about the impact of graphic design

January 9, 2018 | Arts & Culture
Design prof partners with First Nations communities


Carole Charette with an image of a caribou skin coat designed and sewn by Indigenous women in the north coast area of the St. Lawrence River circa 1700 (Photo courtesy of Canadian Museum of History, artifact III-B-589). The design prof has photographed and documented more than 70 coats in the past five years. The complex patterns and use of colour in the coat pictured here make it one of her favourites. 

Assistant Professor Dr. Carole Charette recalls being blown away the first time she saw the hand-painted, intricate designs on an 18th-century caribou skin coat. 

“The beauty of the composition, the complexity of the patterns, the structure of the design and use of colour—it took my breath away,” she says of the coats made by Naskapi, Innu and Cree women. “Everything about these coats is so defined, so carefully thought out, so beautiful and so powerful.”

But as with all good design—regardless of the century it was created in—Carole says the significance of these coats extends far beyond aesthetics.

Beyond aesthetics

“Design isn’t just about beauty, it’s about combining elements in a powerful way that creates an emotional connection to a piece. These coats have a function—each tells a unique story—and you immediately get that when you see them.”

These coats have a function—each tells a unique story—and you immediately get that when you see them.
—Carole Charette

What began with Carole’s appreciation for the work of the women who designed the coats has grown into a five-year research project to study Indigenous iconography and the graphic design principles they used—repetition, colour, rhythm, space and contrast—and how those principles evolved during the 200 years since the first coats were produced.

Carole says that while the earliest coats were painted using natural pigments to create intricate shapes and designs, over time artists moved away from hand painting and increasingly toward embroidery and beading. Abstract patterns were also replaced with more representational patterns, often flowers, which are specific to each community and nation.


Paz Núñez-Regueiro, heritage curator (left), and Carole (right) examine a Naskapi coat (Photo courtesy of Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, in Paris, France. Artifact: MQBJC_71.1947.28.21)

Moving toward re-appropriating lost designs in a spirit of reconciliation

While much of the research to date has involved tracking down the artifacts themselves—most often coats, but also leggings, moccasins and ceremonial hides—some of the most interesting and valuable parts of the work, says Carole, involve building connections and partnerships with several First Nations communities in Quebec.

In meeting with and learning from the craftswomen in these communities about textile patterns being used today, a gap in knowledge around the traditional practice became evident.

“Part of the material culture has been lost over the many years these coats have been produced, most recently due to residential schools,” says Carole. “As we met and looked at photos of the artifacts, we realized that many of the craftspeople had never seen these particular designs before.”

So Carole’s initial goal became to create a visual timeline to track the evolution of the coats’ designs, something she hopes will contribute to a dialogue around the social and cultural impact of graphic design.

“This work needs to happen in conversation and in collaboration with community members to identify what is most important and meaningful for them moving forward,” she says.


Carole is partnering with the Cree First Nation, the Naskapi First Nation and Innu from the North coast of the St.Lawrence River to study coats that were designed and made in the area during the 18th century.

But locating the artifacts needed to build the timeline was a challenge. The coats are made of caribou hide, an organic material, so not many have survived. Of the 175 coats that Carole estimates are in museum collections around the world, only 25 are in North America. Over the last five years, she has photographed and documented about 70 coats in collections at the Royal Ontario Museum, the Smithsonian Institute and at museums in Scotland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, and France.

Carole is partnering with Jimmy Sandy Memorial School, from the Naskapi First Nations community at Kawawachikamach in Quebec, to develop a series of workshops around Indigenous iconography. She is also working with kihêw waciston, the university’s Indigenous centre, and is a member of the team organizing the 2018 Interdisciplinary Dialogue, which invites students from every faculty to discuss and explore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

“There are many things the design elements in these coats, and the partnerships that come from studying them, can teach us,” says Carole. “I hope this work illustrates how we can reinvent and reimagine using very basic elements—dots, circles, squares and lines. How these things can come together in completely different and very powerful ways.”


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