Dale Swampy makes star blankets from home, where his workshop is set up inside his bedroom. He makes colourful, diamond-shaped blanket designs. But it wasn’t until a tragic night in 2012 and its aftermath that he learned the artistic teachings of his heritage.
Swampy began making star blankets during his time at Bowden Institution. In 2015, he was convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to eight years for the killing of Savannah Morin.
Inside the prison, the Pathways program in the minimum-security unit of the facility helps to rehabilitate inmates, which he says was a positive experience.
Swampy was in a group of eight inmates who participated in the program. Out of the members, he says he was the only one to finish. This was also the first time he saw the blankets and learned he had a family history with them.
His brother had learned to make them in residential school.
“When my sister told me that my brother John knows how to make them, I couldn’t believe it. I was just wowed, I guess it just runs in the family.”
Swampy says he learned from an escape artist in prison, who showed him a strict way of the process: making sure everything was lined up correctly. A process that took Swampy six-months when he made his first blanket.
One of the key lessons Swampy picked up from the Pathways program is patience. A lesson he understands when it comes to beginners interested in the craft.
He’s made over twenty blankets. It’s a skill he’s happy to share.
Now he is teaching his niece Secora Samson, 17, how to make one. She helps her uncle cut, iron and sew rows of selected fabric for their design. The colours she chooses are red, green and white. The centre of the blanket will be red.
Samson is from the same Cree-nation territory as Swampy — Maskwacis, Alta. — and moved to Calgary in October to live with Swampy and his mother’s family.
Samson is eager to learn the process and appreciates being taught something new.
“He [Dale] tells me the important stuff. Like to use lighter fabrics before using the darker ones. That’s handy,” says Samson. “And to always make sure your lines are good, to always check it.”
Samson enjoys seeing the lines going straight once they’re ironed and says it’s satisfying to watch.
Swampy enjoys sharing the experience, and believes, “hard work perseveres.”
The blankets sell for $400, and while orders, during a busy season, stack up — Swampy takes the time in ensuring his custom designs are signed, sealed and delivered with his immeasurable process.