Evelyn Gull sits behind her workbench in Waswanipi,Que., and snips a fringe on the sleeve of a small deerhide shirt.

The garment is for a little girl in the community who will be soon participating in a traditional Cree walking-out ceremony.

The front of the shirt is adorned with ribbons, rabbit fur and beadwork.

Gull wears rubber sleeves over two of her fingers to better grip the needle. She is one of the best beaders in Waswanipi, the Cree community 800 kilometres due north of Montreal.

Each day, she spends hours in her craft room making everything from earrings to bracelets to moccasins.

"When I get up in the morning, right away I come into this room and have a coffee, and bead. And before I go to bed this is where I am, in this room," said Gull.

Her favourite items to make are earrings and baby moccasins.

Some projects are special orders; others, she sells at the friendship centre in Chibougamau, the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute in Oujé-Bougoumou, or on community Facebook pages.

Beads

Gull uses these C-sized beads to make larger items like powwow headdresses or belts. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Family connection

Inspired by her mother and sisters, Gull began beading when she was a teenager.

Two of her four sisters, Dorothy and Helen, were especially talented beaders and seamstresses, Gull says.

Both died of cancer in the past two years, and photographs of them hang next to her workspace. She sometimes looks at the photos as she beads, Gull said.

In those moments, "I think they are near," she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Materials galore

The room is packed with materials: hundreds of packets of beads are arranged by colour and size in bins and on a table. Fabric is folded and stacked in a closet, and strings of rhinestones hang on the wall behind her desk.

Gull pulls out two bags of brand new materials and dumps them onto the table.

These have been in her stash for more than a year.

"I can't go to Montreal without buying beads," she said, sifting through the plastic bags that hold gems, rhinestones and small plastic flowers.

"I'm a bead shopper!"

Gull sees projects in her mind's eye as she thumbs a packet holding violet almond-shaped gems.

"These ones I was thinking of making powwow headsets," she said, explaining how she plans to make a flower in the centre of the headdress.

"They would shine in the sun."

Long cultural tradition
bead lampshade

Clients often bring Evelyn Gull single earrings asking her to replace its lost twin. (Marika Wheeler/CBC)

Beading has been part of Cree culture for centuries.

According Laura Phillips, the collections and exhibitions co-ordinator at the Cree Cultural Institute, the Cree have been embellishing garments for centuries.

Before first contact with Europeans, Phillips explains, hides were dyed with natural pigments or decorated with porcupine quills.

Once Europeans made glass beads available, women would sew intricate geometric or floral patterns onto traditional garments, a practice that is kept alive by Gull and other avid artisans in all nine James Bay Cree communities in Quebec.