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Parachute Shirt

Public Submission
Délįne, Northwest Territories
Materials & techniques
Nylon, plastic
Cece Hodgson-McCauley
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, 2010.012.019
At first glance, this lightweight, long sleeved shirt is unassuming. It is machine sewn with a four button front closure, two buttons at the cuffs, rounded hems, and a pointed collar. The shirt’s material, however, tells a unique northern story.

The shirt was sewn by Cece Hodgson-McCauley as a young woman, around 1950 or 1951, from a piece of parachute. The material has a fine texture like silk but is actually nylon, a synthetic fibre developed in the 1930s by Dupont. Parachutes were manufactured from nylon during the Second World War when silk became scarce.

A Canadian military exercise called Operation Muskox had passed through the Northwest Territories in 1946. This was an overland expedition whose purpose was to test military skills and equipment in the winter arctic environment, and to collect scientific data. A convoy of cabbed snowmobiles and 45 men covered 3,100 miles through isolated territory. It was resupplied by airdrops deployed by cargo parachutes. Over 419 tons of cargo were delivered using this method, including replacement sleighs. During one such manoeuvre, the parachutes failed and two sleighs were reduced to matchsticks on the ground.

Local people collected discarded or damaged parachutes as the convoy passed by. Cece obtained part of one at Port Radium on Great Bear Lake. Now over 90 years old and living in Norman Wells, she recalls that many people got parachute material, and transformed it into numerous blouses and wedding dresses. “Pretty hard to sew that silk” she says now, “It was so fine.”

She still had some of the material left a number of years later when living in Fort Franklin (now Délįne). The mission priest, Bern Will Brown, suggested it would make a fine shirt. Cece got to work on her sewing machine, and presented Father Brown with the gift. Only then was she told the buttons were on the wrong side of the front opening for a man’s garment. Sixty-five years later, she admits: “I never even knew there was a difference!”

The creative reuse of materials by resourceful people is common to all societies. This shirt tells the stories of a textile’s two lives: its former life as a military parachute and its current one as a piece of clothing. Embodying that resourcefulness, Cece Hodgson-McCauley has had a busy life as a business owner, the founding chief of the Inuvik Dene band, a newspaper columnist, and all-round outspoken personality.
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