CLOQUET, Minn. -- Herb Fineday maneuvered black velvet through the steady hum of his industrial sewing machine. Both hands pressed firmly as he rotated the fabric clockwise, counterclockwise, outlining a bright floral pattern with blue thread.
The retired Fond du Lac police chief has been sewing, doing beadwork and making regalia for years. This fall, he built a 16-by-14-foot studio nestled behind his Cloquet home, where he creates custom ribbon skirts, vests, ties, belts, bags and more for his applique business, Round Lake Traditions.
The studio was a necessity. When he expanded his basement into two bedrooms for his children, he lost his sewing space.
The studio took 17 days to build. Standing inside it, the wood walls and floor looked fresh.
Sunlight poured in from three directions.
There are two irons, three sewing machines, an ironing board with handwritten inch markers. On top of drawers filled with velvet, lacey fabric, elastic and ribbons sit spools of thread in every color.
Along with black-and-white pictures of Fineday and his daughter, a big bundle of sage hung on the wall. Every day he works in his studio, he smudges his equipment with sage before beginning.
It’s the colors in the corner that beckon your attention.
Ribbon skirts and velvet vests with plum, lilac, magenta, blue. Crossbody bags in tan and yellow, and large concho belts in black and brown. Also, some shirts with sewn outlines of eagles or florals.
His main materials are vinyl, elk and brain-tanned deer hide.
Fineday reached into a drawer to remove smoked hide from a plastic bag. It smelled like a campfire and felt smooth to the touch. He’ll use it on drums, tobacco pouches, pipe bags and moccasins, he said.
Fineday has been dancing in powwows since he was a child. “I would always look at the intricate beadwork and the designs,” he said. He learned how to sew watching his mother — he’s been doing it for 30 years — and he prefers to make his own regalia.
Fineday was always interested in pencil work, beadwork and wood burning.
His art teacher Kim Darst was influential in him developing his skills and introducing him to different mediums, he said.
“From the get-go, I knew he had natural artistic ability,” said Darst, noting his works in realism and pencil. “He’s an exemplary role model.”
He is a very self-motivated, reflective and humble person, she said. And he was very supported by his parents. Fineday said his work is deeply rooted in his family and his cultural teachings.
“Kids are like sponges; they watch your every move, how you carry yourself,” he said. They emulate you, so you take care with what you’re doing. My grandfather was so meticulous, he paid attention to detail, Fineday said, so today, he carries that into his art, just as he did in his work in law enforcement.
Fineday retired as the Fond du Lac chief of police last year, and in June, he started Round Lake Traditions, named after his homestead on White Earth Reservation. “That’s where my culture and tradition comes from," he said. "All my floral designs, all the teachings from our traditions come from Round Lake.”
There, he grew up in the traditional Ojibwe lifestyle. His grandmother did a lot of beadwork; his grandfather trapped furs during winter. “My ancestors, they probably didn’t see it as artwork. They saw it as preparing for the next season. They wanted to adorn themselves with something pretty,” he said.
In 2008, Fineday started doing applique, decorative needlework that forms patterns on fabric. He prefers it to beading. It might take three or four days to bead a floral choker, but he can finish an applique piece of the same flower in a day.
In his studio, Fineday used a rotary cutter on what would become a black velvet vest. He traced floral leaves and petals from stencils he sketched, and then cut out an adhesive fabric.
He cuts out all of his pieces because although he could complete more work with a Cricut machine, he wants his art to be 100% handmade.
He purchased a belt-driven industrial sewing machine for $2,200. He had to do some modifications, but Fineday said it’s well worth it. It produces more than 3,000 stitches a minute. “I can finish one of these vests in one day now,” he said.
He also has a Brother and a Singer; each serves a purpose, and he cleans and oils his tools once a week.
He has to adjust the tension on his machines depending on his projects. And: “I’ve never sewn my own finger.”
On the business side, Fineday had a lot of experience keeping budgets and writing grants. Still, Fineday said starting Round Lake Traditions was “scary.”
“I had a little bit of a transition period, where, ‘I’m not a cop no more. Who am I, what am I doing? Do I call myself an artist, do I call myself a tailor, do I call myself a seamster? I’m not a seamstress.
“My wife says, ‘You’re an artist.’”