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ELLE World: Sewing, culture and traditions in Nunavut

Author: Elle Canada

Travel

ELLE World: Sewing, culture and traditions in Nunavut

Even in early October, when there is limited snow, the wind makes Rankin Inlet feel bitterly cold—it is purportedly the windiest inhabited place in Canada. Photography by Christina Reynolds.

"Wow, what a fantastic parka!” I exclaimed as I passed a woman in the frozen-food aisle of the Rankin Inlet grocery store. She smiled and nodded before continuing with her shopping. The custom-made jacket was a vibrant royal blue with a matching fox-fur collar. Its sleeves were carefully outlined with bands of flower-patterned ribbons as well as reflective-silver trim. This was the first of many fashionable and functional homemade parkas I would spot during my visit to the remote Nunavut community on the northwestern edge of Hudson Bay this past October.

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“If you live up here, you have to sew,” Mary-Lee Sandy-Aliyak, a 40-year-old human-resources worker and accomplished seamstress, tells me. It’s the following morning, and we’re at the Singiituq Complex, the local hockey arena (and the town’s largest indoor gathering place). “Sewing is a hobby, but it’s a full-time hobby,” she continues. “It’s part of surviving—we do almost everything from scratch here.” Over the next few hours, some 600 members of this community of approximately 3,000 will queue up to choose from an assortment of free outerwear fabrics, linings and trims provided by Canada Goose.

This Canada Goose Resource Centre event was organized by the Toronto-based outerwear maker in partnership with First Air, Canada’s largest Arctic airline, which has agreed to ship tons of material free of charge. Fabric deliveries to Pond Inlet and Iqaluit first began in 2009. After that, the program went on a bit of a hiatus, but it has now been relaunched with an expansion to Rankin Inlet this past October and to Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec in November. The company plans to continue adding Northern towns to the roster and to return to each community once or twice a year.

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The story of how the program began starts in 2007, when Kevin Spreekmeester, Canada Goose’s senior vice-president of marketing, was visiting his friend David Reid, an arctic-expedition leader, in Pond Inlet. “David said to me: ‘Isn’t your company slogan “Ask anyone who knows?” Have you asked the Inuit what they know about making jackets? Because the same styles have been around for thousands of years,’” says Spreekmeester. So that same year, as part of the company’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, the brand invited two skilled seamstresses from Pond Inlet, Meeka Atagootak and Rebecca Killiktee, to the company’s Toronto factory to collaborate on a commemorative one-of-a-kind parka that would combine Inuit thinking with the brand’s technical know-how. “While they were in our factory, Meeka and Rebecca picked up scraps of fabric and asked if they could take them home,” says Spreekmeester. “We said, ‘You don’t need to carry these pieces home; we’ll send a whole box of extra fabric!’” For Dani Reiss, Canada Goose’s CEO, this mutually beneficial solution led to the idea for the resource centres. “Why not help out Northern communities by donating our excess and discontinued fabrics and solve our own waste problem at the same time?” says Reiss. “This is a really important project for us because our company was born in the North, making industrial arctic parkas for oil, mine and airline workers. It’s a way for us to celebrate and honour Northern communities as well as the heritage and traditional ways of the North.”

Find out how significant sewing is to Northern families on the next page... sewing-nunavut-culture-002.jpg

Some of the colourful fabrics being distributed in Rankin Inlet. Photography by Christina Reynolds.

Sandy-Aliyak plans to use the fabric she has picked up at the Rankin Inlet event to make hunting clothes for her two young sons. “The boys are growing fast—each season, I have to make them a different size,” she says. “We’ve always made everything, head to toe, in our family. My grandmother taught me to hand-sew little mitts and socks when I was two. By the time I was four, I was working the foot pedal for her on her sewing machine. For a four-year-old, that was a lot of fun!” In addition to sewing with modern high-tech fabrics, Sandy-Aliyak continues to use traditional materials like fox fur, seal skin and leather. In fact, when we meet, she is wearing a parka that she made out of these three materials.

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“Whatever the fabric, I stick to the traditional Inuit law of how the design should be,” she says. “For example, if you have a hood that is constructed with three pieces, then the traditional design calls for either a curved bottom or straight arms.”

Rowena House, executive director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, who was in town from Iqaluit for the event, says that sewing is considered an Inuit art form as well as a functional necessity. “It’s a nice overlap,” she says. “But sewing in the North can be a challenge—almost every house has a sewing machine, but the cost of getting materials is so expensive. While a program like [the Canada Goose Resource Centres] could help with that, we also have to be careful that it doesn’t harm the business community.” Still, she points out, giving away free fabric could actually help local businesses. “It could be that a lot of ladies got their linings for free today but now need to pick up other sewing supplies, so this could be a catalyst.”

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Victoria Kakuktinniq, in a coat of her own design, with her grandmother Lizzie Ittinuar. In the background is a traditional amauti, beaded by her grandmother. Photography by Kevin Spreekmeester.

Victoria Kakuktinniq, who moved back to Rankin Inlet last fall after spending a year studying fashion design at MC College in Winnipeg, is using her sewing skills to build her own design business. She already has 10 orders for an embroidered form-fitting parka she created in school. “I try to modernize my designs so they are less bulky and make you feel confident,” says the 24-year-old, who previously studied traditional Inuit sewing and design though a local Nunavut Literacy Council program. “I learned about the traditional designs first, and I incorporate the curves of the amauti style into my designs.” (The amauti is the traditional Inuit parka with a baby pouch in the back.) Kakuktinniq’s grandmother, Lizzie Ittinuar, who is in her 90s, is still making elaborate beaded amautiit that are worn on special occasions like Nunavut Day. She is proud of the modern styles her granddaughter creates. “I’m really worried about young people not being able to sew; I would like to teach them, but I have not been well,” she tells me in Inuktitut through a translator. “But it’s never too late.” She says she didn’t start beading until she was in her 50s, and now some of her work can be found in museums. “I talk to the women now who are over 50 and I tell them they should try too. ‘You can easily do it,’ I say, ‘because I was able to do it.’”

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Kakuktinniq certainly sees the parallels between her work and her grandmother’s. “I look at her beading and at the thread embroidery on my coats and see the similarities,” she says. “I hope that one day I can get her to teach me how to do the beading. It’s important for me to carry it on because I know it’s important for her. I always want to incorporate the Inuit tradition into my modern outfits.” She pauses to look at one of her grandmother’s beaded amautiit. “I look at this and I just love it.”

Meet four more amazing women from Rankin Inlet on the next page...
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Jovette Kurok, Noreen Muckpaloo, Special Kusugak and Shawna Dias of Rankin Inlet. Photography by Christina Reynolds.

Jovette Kurok

Jovette Kurok, 26, learned to sew at age 15 by reading a sewing-machine manual. Today, she sews for her five young children, including baby Joseph. “When they go down for a nap, I sew,” she says. For design inspiration, she turns to her children’s crayon colours (like the yellows and blues of the traditional amauti she is wearing).

Noreen Muckpaloo and Special Kusugak

Noreen Muckpaloo, 26, and Special Kusugak, 27, work for First Air and volunteered at the Canada Goose Resource Centre event. Muckpaloo is wearing her fall jacket. “I have a thicker one to keep me warm in -60˚C.” In addition to her First Air duties, Kusugak is a hairdresser. “Right now, I have purple highlights to match this coat,” she says.

Shawna Dias
Shawna Dias, 38, runs a busy business selling custom parkas via Facebook. “I make two to three coats per week,” she says. “I’d rather just stay home and sew all day than do almost anything else.” In 2012, she bought her daughter, Shanti, 11, a sewing machine. “She has been making little purses and headbands for her friends.”

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ELLE World: Sewing, culture and traditions in Nunavut