Nunavut craftswomen are working to turn their traditional skills sewing sealskins into a commercial furrier industry
Elisapee Kilabuk sits in a busy workshop in Iqaluit weaving bluedyed strands of sealskin into a piece of black mesh. It’s typical of the latest styles from the fashion runways of Milan: fur that’s coloured, woven, shaved—-used in ways that hardly suggest Arctic tradition. “We can do anything,” she says, “not only Inuit-style.” Yet for Kilabuk, 50, and the seven other
Inuit women in the government-sponsored class in advanced fur fashion techniques, much of the motivation is pride in their heritage. Just a few years ago, an international backlash against seal hunting seemed likely to permanently eliminate all but the local Arctic market for sealskin. But now, thanks in part to a general easing of anti-fur sentiment, optimism reigns.
The man in charge of the workshop is Montreal furrier Ingo Moslener. He’s been coming to the Eastern Arctic since 1997 to teach modern methods to women who learned to sew sealskins by hand at their mothers’ knees. But he is careful not to suggest that he is dictating to these proud craftswomen: “We just try and keep them aware of trends.” This year, reversible garments are in vogue, so Moslener is showing them
ways to make jackets and vests that can be worn with the leather or suede on the outside.
In Nunavut, sealskin coats and kamiiks, the traditional Inuit boots, are as common as below-zero days. But the aim of the Nunavut government is to take the craft to a more advanced level. Larry Simpson, senior adviser for fisheries and sealing in the territory’s department of sustainable development, says a few years ago seal hunting was on the wane. Then in 1995, the Northwest Territories began supporting the harvest by buying sealskins from Inuit hunters for $30 each, a program the Nunavut government kept up after it was created in 1999. Now, about 500 hunters provide up to 7,000 skins a year, which the territorial government sells at one of the fur industry’s major auctions in North Bay, Ont., every December. In the latest auction, demand for seal was brisk, Simpson says, with good skins selling for about $45 each.
But the Nunavut government’s goal is to do more than export skins for others to turn into clothes. The workshops are intended to develop the sort of commercial furrier skills capable of supplying a demanding market outside the North. As well, Simpson is spearheading a strategy for creating a profile for Nunavut in the fashion industry as a source of distinctive seal coats and accessories. Last spring, for the first time, the territorial government took a Nunavut Inuit collection to the runway at Montreal’s North American Fur and Fashion Exposition, complete with Inuit models. A new Nunavut line of eight distinctive coats will be back at the big annual fur fashion showcase on May 6. It’s all very exciting for the women at Moslener’s workshop, but Simpson admits it is, so far, a long way from a commercially viable industry. “It’s more wrapped up with pride in Nunavut’s identity,” he says. A pride that can be expressed, it seems, as easily through this season’s trendy reversible vest as it can through a timeless pair of snug kamiiks.
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