Importance of Sewing - Ulukhaktok, NT

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THE IMPORTANCE OF SEWING Perspectives from Inuit women in Ulukhaktok, NT

Prepared by: Kristin Emanuelsen 2020

The Importance of Sewing


Credits Photos

Donna Akhiatak Kristin Emanuelsen Susie Memogana Trent Peter Kuptana Tristan Pearce


Vicky O’Rourke

Š 2020 Indigenous Services Canada and the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Cover photo: Kanayok (Kate Inuktalik) Emanuelsen K, Memogana S, Akhiatak D (2020). The Importance of Sewing: Perspectives from Inuit women in Ulukhaktok, NT. Joint publication of Ulukhaktok Community Corporation (UCC), Indigenous Services Canada and University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SEWING Perspectives from Inuit women in Ulukhaktok, NT

Haluk (Margaret Notaina), Agnes Kuptana, Denise Okheena, Bessie Inuktalik, Mary Kudlak, Kristin Emanuelsen and Emily Kudlak

This report is dedicated to the research participants who openly shared their knowledge and skills of sewing in Ulukhaktok and in loving memory of Beverly Memogana.

Acknowledgements This research was financially supported by the Nunamin Illihakvia project, funded by Indigenous Services Canada and administered by the Ulukhaktok Community Corporation (UCC). Koana to the people of Ulukhaktok who welcomed me into their homes and their lives. Thank you to the Elders past, present and future for continuing to share your knowledge, wisdom and values. Thank you to Donna Akhiatak, Susie Memogana, Annie Goose and others who helped guide the research in Ulukhaktok. A special thank you to Winnie Akhiatak, Harold Wright, Robert and Agnes Kuptana, Helen and Joseph Kitekudlak, Karen Kitekudlak, Jean and Pat Ekpakohak, Melanie and Adam Kudlak, Kanayok (Kate Inuktalik), Rachel Banksland, Beverly Memogana, Joyce Banksland, Lena Nigiyok and Sara Kallak.

Kanayok making decorations for a parka The Importance of Sewing


Table of Contents Research Abstract. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Description of Ulukhaktok, NT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 Methods. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 Results . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 Conclusions. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

Lena Nigiyok walking in the community


The Importance of Sewing

Research Abstract This research examines sewing activity with a cohort of Inuit women from the hamlet of Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada. This involves describing the importance of sewing to these Inuit women, how sewing knowledge is generated and transmitted and how sewing has changed over time. Data were collected using semi-structured interviews with 30 Inuit women over 18 years of age and participant observation by the author. The data show that sewing continues to be important to Inuit women of all ages, but under new conditions. Unlike the past when sewing was an essential skill, today sewing is a choice. There have been breaks in the transmission of sewing knowledge for many women, but sewing knowledge continues today to be transmitted through stories, observation and hands-on learning and now includes organised sewing groups. Sewing contributes to participant’s health and the collective health of the community in several ways including, socialization, intergenerational relationships, pride and sense of accomplishment, cultural identity, healing and a range of feelings. Sewing is an important source of income, and with the Internet, sewers have access to global markets, both to sell items and purchase materials and animal skins. As such, sewers no longer have to rely on having a hunter in their household to supply them with skins. In conclusion, the findings reveal as much or more about cultural change, resilience and adaptability as they do about the importance of sewing. Despite undergoing sweeping societal changes, sewing continues to have cultural, health, economic, and practical importance to women in Ulukhaktok.

Gilbert Olifie, Emily Kudlak and Carah Banksland

The Importance of Sewing


Introduction This research builds upon a larger body of scholarship about Inuit and sewing. Previous studies have focused on the design elements of Inuit skin clothing in different regions of the Arctic. These include, for example, studies on skin sewing techniques (Wilder 1979; Issenman 1997); Inuit and clothing production (Oakes 1988; Stenton 1991) including a comparison of traditional and manufactured cold weather ensembles (Oakes et al. 1995); and how Inuit learn sewing skills (Reitan 2006). Other studies have examined the role of sewing in improving wellness (Kral and Idlout 2012), and the contribution women make to local economies through sewing (Miller 1994; Oakes 1995). Each study addresses an aspect of change within the Inuit sewing complex. Most research about the activity of sewing by Inuit has been conducted with women from the generation who were raised on the land and later moved into settlements. These studies show that sewing remained an important part of Inuit culture post-settlement and became a valued source of income for some women (Oakes 1988; Miller 1994; Issenman 1997). Fewer studies have worked with women who were born and raised in the settlement. Studies that

have, tend to include sewing as an add-on to another research question and provide minimal insight into the activity of sewing (Dowsley et al. 2010; Bunce et al. 2016). As a result, we have a limited understanding of a core aspect of contemporary Inuit women’s lives, which may hinder efforts to support women’s health and wellness in a changing Arctic. This research responds to these knowledge gaps by examining sewing activity with a cohort of Inuit women from Ulukhaktok, Northwest Territories, Canada. The research has three objectives:


d escribe the importance of sewing to these Inuit women;


ocument how sewing knowledge is generated and d transmitted between generations; and


describe how sewing has changed over time.

“I like to think of it, like sewing, is a link to my past. Like long ago, we didn’t have a will or we didn’t have property or jewellery to hand down, it’s the skills and the values, that’s what we hand down.” Karen Kitekudlak (43yrs)


The Importance of Sewing

Description of Ulukhaktok, NT Ulukhaktok (70o44’11’’N 117 o46’05’’W) is a coastal Inuit Hamlet of approximately 420 people located by the Arctic Ocean on the west coast of Victoria Island in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (ISR) of the Northwest Territories (NWT). Ulukhaktok emerged as a fixed settlement starting in 1939 with the establishment of a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post and a Roman Catholic mission near the location of the current settlement. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the regional population continued to live in isolated hunting and trapping camps and came to Ulukhaktok several times a year to trade furs and socialise (Pearce et al. 2010). Inuit in Ulukhaktok are largely descended from the northernmost groups of Copper Inuit: the Kangiryuarmiut of Prince Albert Sound and the Kangiryuatjagmiut of Minto Inlet (Condon and others 1995). In the 1930s and 1940s, several western Inuit (now called Inuvialuit) from the Mackenzie Delta region moved into the Ulukhaktok area for the purposes of trapping or employment at the HBC or the Roman Catholic mission (Condon and others 1995). As a result of the closing of the Reid Island HBC trading post on southern Victoria Island in the early 1960s, several Puvilingmiut families also moved to the Ulukhaktok area (Condon and others 1995). In 1967 the last Inuit family to remain on the land moved into the settlement and the community has since expanded considerably in terms of infrastructure, services and local economy (Condon 1987). Despite undergoing profound societal changes, Ulukhaktok has a rich arts and crafts culture. The community has an Art Centre that produces prints, muskox carvings, qiviut (muskox wool) products and other traditional items. There are also a few initiatives from different organisations promoting to share and learn traditional

knowledge of skin preparation and sewing in Ulukhaktok. Brighter Futures, a community-based mental health program developed by the IRC in cooperation with Health Canada, focuses on improving the physical, mental and social well-being of children and their families. In Ulukhaktok, younger kids are encouraged to participate in sewing groups held once a week to build knowledge and enhance skills in the community.

Ulukhaktok in February 2019 The Importance of Sewing


Methods The research draws on 30 face-to-face interviews and participant observation with Inuit women to document the sewing activity in Ulukhaktok. Data were collected over three months in Ulukhaktok with a local research partner using semi-structured interviews with a sample stratified by age group, participant observation of sewing activities, and analysis of primary sources (prices of local sewing materials, and social media). The research was conducted in accordance with ethics approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of the Sunshine Coast (approval reference: S181208) and licenced by the Aurora Research Insitute (#16521), which overseas research in the Northwest Territories. For the purpose of analysis, participants were divided into four general categories based on generation (Table 1). The validity of the qualitative data was ensured using team debriefing, member checking and triangulation. Each completed interview transcript was reviewed with the Inuit research partner.

The researcher visited with the participants on multiple occasions in addition to the interview. During these visits, the researcher was able to clarify information shared during the interview, check for accuracy and confirm that they had interpreted what the respond shared correctly. The reviewed interview data were then analysed following the principles of latent content analysis to identify recurring or common themes related to the research questions. Interview data were coded and analysed based on these themes. The data collected reflects the knowledge and experiences of the participants. Efforts were made to include participants of different ages and family groups and it is likely that some information shared can be attributed to the broader Ulukhaktok community.

Table 1. Demographic characteristics of interview participants in Ulukhaktok. Cohort






Young Elder








Oldest Elder Total

30 Kristin Emanuelsen and Agnes Kuptana


The Importance of Sewing

Results Here we present the findings from the analysis of interview data complemented by insights from participation observation and primary sources when appropriate. The content of each theme is dealt with independently for the purpose of presentation, but it is recognised that information within themes often overlaps. 1.0 Transmission of Sewing Knowledge Sewing is a tangible cultural item that Inuit can practice as a way of connecting with and expressing their culture. Traditionally, sewing knowledge was acquired over several years through stories, observation and apprenticeship with skilled family members. Since moving into the settlement, however, the generation and transmission of sewing knowledge has changed. Sewing is still learned through stories, observation and apprenticeship with a skilled teacher but today, this often happens at older ages, includes formalised learning opportunities that go beyond immediate family as teachers, and the motivations to do so are often by choice rather than necessity. This may be due to the loss of Elders and the desire of younger Inuit not to lose traditional skills, and also perhaps because as women get older, they are more interested in their culture and identity. Unlike learning a language or acquiring hunting skills, sewing is a relatively safe, low-cost and accessible cultural activity. All participants said that sewing group now plays an important role in the generation and transmission of sewing knowledge, especially for less common traditional items.

Margaret Akoakhion and Agnes Kuptana

â€œâ€Śmy mom taught us to be creative, you can always use it for something. If you want to be who you are, you must be able to prepare skin and sew.â€? Jean Ekpakhoak (67 yrs) Lisa Alikamik, Agnes Kuptana, Mary Kudlak, Kanayok and Emily Kudlak The Importance of Sewing


2.0 Gender and Sewing It is recognised that before moving into the settlement not every Inuit was in a marriage-type relationship, but participants said that male-female partnerships were the norm. Oldest Elder participants explained that for them, men and women were defined by the types of work they performed, men usually led hunting and women usually led sewing and child rearing, but both contributed to getting jobs done. Andy Akoakhion (80+yrs) explained that when the season started to change and get colder, couples would start to sew and they would not stop until everyone had new clothing for winter. Sewing continues to be dominantly a women’s activity today but like in the past, participants shared that some men also know how to sew, mostly out of necessity to fix their clothes when traveling. Sewing groups are for the most part exclusive to women, and although men are welcome, participants considered sewing group as a time for women to get together. A few men in the community actively sew, including the manager of the local art shop. Elsie Oveluk (53yrs) explained that everyone chooses their own way to express their interest in sewing and art, and how there are several guys who can sew and embroider at a high level. Kanayok and Agnes Kuptana making mitts from musk-ox fur

“Sewing was such an essential thing to do for the moms and daughters, even for the men. My dad always had a sewing case in his traveling bag. If he rips something, he can’t go back, he has to able to do it on the land. It’s a really big thing that you have to know, even as a man. ” Helen Kitekudlak (66yrs)

Tony Alanak checking a fox trap


The Importance of Sewing

3.0 Sewing, Health and Well-being The role of sewing in health and well-being is more than the act of sewing itself but also includes socialisation, time outside of the house at sewing groups, nurturing relationships, and connecting with the teachings of ancestors and culture. Taken together, the research revealed that these aspects of sewing contribute to participant’s health and well-being and the collective health and well-being of the community in several ways including, pride and sense of accomplishment, cultural identity, and a myriad of feelings. Pride is felt by all participants when they contribute to keeping their culture going through sewing. Sewing is also a way to relax and reduce stress in their lives. Living in a community where socialising is a big part of everyday life, sewing is seen by participants as an activity that can help them “wind down” and focus their minds on one task. Others shared similar feelings and described sewing as something that brings balance to their everyday lives. Participants shared that unlike even ten years ago, fewer people go visiting in the evenings, and it takes something like sewing group for people to go out of their houses and socialize. Sewing traditional items was described by participants as being reflective of their Inuit identity. It’s about carrying on the traditions of their ancestors and their Inuit culture through patterns, designs and stitching. For Young Elder and Adult participants, sewing offers them an opportunity to connect with their ancestors and traditions. For Oldest Elder and Elder participants, sewing provides continuity between their past way of living and the present.

Lena Nigiyok wearing her home made kamiks, mitts and parka

“I have taught our sewing when I am counselling, when I used to be the city counsellor, a lot of times I use art and sewing for just sitting there and talking. And I find it always calms the child or person down, and it makes you feel so at peace, like you could start talking about anything.” Mary Okheena (61yrs) Beverly Memogana, Susie Memogana and Rachel Banksland The Importance of Sewing


4.0 Patterns and designs All participants shared that they use a variety of patterns and designs when sewing, including those handed down by their relatives and new trends. Patterns and designs handed down by relatives are important because they connect sewers to the past, provide them with guidance in their sewing, and help them continue to express their culture. It is also noteworthy that sewing clothing has always served a practical function; one cannot survive in the Arctic environment without warm clothing. For Inuit women today, however, the definition of ‘survival’ has expanded to also include cultural, spiritual and physical continuance of traditions and connection with ancestors, which they express by sewing traditionally inspired clothing.

“Each person has their own design. You know, your fingerprint. That’s how it is with ladies sewing too, you can tell who sewed what.”

Attungaks made from bleached seal skin used to adorn kamiks

Karen Kitekudlak (43yrs)

Participants explained that the first priority when sewing was to make a functional item. This is particularly important when sewing clothing to withstand the cold of winter, what some participants refer to as ‘traveling clothes.’ Some Oldest Elder and Elder participants continue to sew winter clothing using caribou sinew for thread because of its durability and elasticity. A seam stitched with caribou sinew thread is air tight, which prevents the wind from getting through, and keeps travellers warm. Oldest Elder and some Elder participants also described the importance of sewing stiches close together to keep the clothing warm. The stitching is what kept the clothing from falling apart, and it was crucial to keep the stitching tight so that air would not penetrate. Waterproof stiching on ipegaouteks (seal skin waterproof boots)


The Importance of Sewing

5.0 Belief systems and Sewing Underlying the activity of sewing is a belief system that once governed Inuit life pre-settlement and today continues, to a lesser degree, to influence sewing. Many participants described sewing as “who they are.” Sewing has always been part of their lives, and a valued activity that makes a practical contribution to the collective well-being of their families and community. Women sew for their families and despite moving into the settlement and associated changes, the role of the sewer as a provider continues. Participants described feeling a closeness with deceased family members while sewing, including their grandparents, parents, children and spouses. The majority (85%) of participants said that you can sew different energies into clothing, and that it will affect the people who wear it. For example, many participants shared that they would put their sewing away if they got frustrated or if they did not have good energy at that time. Some participants also shared how they think about the person who they are sewing for while they are sewing. By doing so, they believe that the final product will carry the good energy forward to the person who wears it. On another level, some participants explained that a clothing item can be sewn to have positive healing and health properties for the person wearing them. As Jean Ekpakhoak (67yrs) shared, “my mom used to say in Inuinnaqtun, each stich is made in love.

Mary-Jane Nigiyok, Adele Alonak and Janet Kanayok

“I don’t sew when I’m frustrated, I put it away. Sewing in the frustration, and maybe people wearing it will be frustrated.” Susie Memogana (31yrs)

Mary and Andy Akoakhion The Importance of Sewing


6.0 Commodification of Sewing Oldest Elder and Elder participants explained that sewing was more straightforward when living on the land: you got an animal and used it to make clothing for your family. Today, however, participants said that there is pressure to earn some income from the animals that are harvested and selling sewing made from the skins is one way to generate income. All participants, to varying degrees, have sold items they have sewed and/or sewed items specifically to sell. In most cases, sewings are sold to customers from outside the community, either through personal transactions or the local art shop. Inuit in the Ulukhaktok area were introduced to the market economy in the 1930s through fur traders and missionaries. Inuit traded furs for imported goods like metal knives, canned foods and later rifles, which forever changed Inuit lives. As time progressed, Inuit adopted many southern products into their daily lives, which required them to hunt and trade furs to acquire. Today the community can be described as having a mixed economy including both subsistence and wagebased earnings. The results presented here focus on the role that sewing plays in this economy. All participants shared that they sew to earn income and some participants said that sewing was their only source of income. A majority (80%) of participants identified sewing for their families, but also sewing items to sell. Learning how to sew is considered by participants as a practical way to earn income and gain financial independence. It is commonplace for sewing items to be available for purchase at the local art shop and at the homes of many sewers. 60% of participants said that they take customer orders for their sewings. Social media platforms, mostly Facebook, are popular ways of matching sewers with customers. This has added a new dynamic to how people sew.

Cutting out a pattern on fur with an Ulu

Denise Okheena sewing with an old sewing machine


The Importance of Sewing

Nunamin Illihakvia opening day 2018 The Importance of Sewing


Conclusions Previous research on sewing activity by Inuit in the Canadian Arctic documented the continued role and expanded economic importance of sewing to women who moved from the land into a settlement. This research shows that sewing continues to be important to Inuit women, although under new social and economic conditions. These conditions include: sewing by choice and not necessity; ability to purchase sewing materials and furs; sewing as a way of connecting with culture; changes in the way that sewing knowledge is shared, including organised sewing groups; global influences on patterns and designs; and sewing for income. Taken together, these new internal and external conditions have changed the local sewing culture, and the ways in which sewing is important to Inuit women. Sewing is a tangible cultural item that Inuit can practice as a way of connecting with and expressing their culture. Unlike learning a language or acquiring hunting skills, sewing is a relatively safe, lowcost and accessible cultural activity. Inuit women who did not learn how to sew in their youth because they did not see the practical value of sewing and/or did not have the opportunity to learn, are now choosing to learn how to sew later in life. For some women who did not experience life on the land and who might not engage with the land as often as they would like to, sewing and wearing traditional items is a way for them to connect to their ancestors and culture. In these ways, sewing plays an important role in women’s health as practicing culture is an important component health. In light of all the changes that have affected Inuit sewing, including those which can be viewed as negative, positive or inevitable, the core of traditional sewing remains intact in Ulukhaktok but is sensitive to the loss of Elders, and dependence on external sources of materials and funding


The Importance of Sewing

for sewing groups. As the results show, research on sewing activity by Inuit women reveals as much or more about cultural change, resilience and adaptability as it does about sewing in itself. Sewing has withstood attempts to erode its value and has been adapted to meet modern needs such as earning income and fashion trends. Inuit sewing is rooted in the past with the preparation and use of skins, but it is practiced in the contemporary World with the use of modern patterns, designs and inclusion of other materials like dyed furs and synthetic materials. The findings show that, despite undergoing dramatic societal changes, sewing continues to have practical, economic and social value to Inuit in Ulukhaktok. Future work in Ulukhaktok and elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic must attend to these important cultural items and contextual factors if we are to better understand Inuit priorities and what it means for the health and well-being of Arctic communities. For more information about this research, contact Kristin Emanuelsen (

Donna Akhiatak´s seal skin kamiks The Importance of Sewing


Kanayok and Donna Akhiatak streaching a seal skin hide