There is a special fellowship between weavers who work in the Pangnirtung Weave Shop. Former manager Hickman’s final report (November 1983) sums up the ambience: “it is remarkable how convivial a group the weavers remain. The atmosphere—through the steady clack and clatter of looms and the buzz of sewing machines—is always warm and supportive. The weavers are constantly helping each other, dressing a loom or solving a problem, sharing their work breaks with bannock and tea.”
Hickman attributed the atmosphere to the shop’s activities. “Monthly general meetings to discuss whatever comes up, annual parties at Christmas and a shop closing in June as well as a policy of having the staff vote to select new staff—all add to this friendly atmosphere. I feel that the steadiness and happiness of the employees is one of the shop’s greatest assets.”
In part, the shop’s unique atmosphere is also due to the predominance of women. Many people, men and women, bring in drawings to be made into tapestries, but the shop itself has remained mostly a women’s domain. Janet Senior, manager between 1972 and 1976, suggested that the female character of the Weave Shop had a great influence on the selection of designs used in the tapestries. “As women, the weavers chose softer stories, subjects like going fishing, going out for tea on the river bank. We did have more stories of women and children and of women’s work than men’s.”
Pangnirtung tapestries are adapted from drawings purchased from local artists, the co-op or the print shop. The artists whose work has been chosen most frequently also have been women, such as Malaya Akulukjuk, Annie Pitsiulak, Annie Kilabuk and Elisapee Ishulutak.
The role of the artists (who do the drawings) in the production of tapestries should not be underestimated. Megan Williams says sometimes the role and influence of the artists, Malaya Akulukjuk especially, is overlooked. Malaya is said to be the artist who best symbolizes the evolution of the Pangnirtung tapestries. She has been very involved in the shop right from the beginning and her works have strongly influenced the weavers and their choice of subject matter.
The Co-operative effort involved in the production of tapestries allows much room for interpretation on the part of the weavers. “To transfer a drawing to tapestry requires thought and much co-operation,” says Hanna Akulukjuk, who worked as a tapestry weaver from 1977 to 1994. Decisions about size, design and colour must be made.
Artists vary in their feelings about how much control the weavers should have in interpreting images and colours. Malaya Akulukjuk, who draws animals and legendary scenes and creatures, says she likes to see her drawings transformed into tapestries but prefers that the weavers use more realistic colours (resembling nature) when they interpret the designs. Graphic artist Gyta Eeseemailie thinks the colours of the tapestries should be decided by the weaver.
Idah Karpik, an artist who has worked with the shop since 1975, says she pictures an image of her drawing in her mind before she draws it, and usually likes the weaver’s interpretations because, as women, they naturally know her subject matter. She is always willing to be called in to discuss the work: “if there are fine lines [which are hard to interpret as weaving], I can change them, make them bigger or different.”
The weavers say the hardest part of their job is adapting the drawing to a weaving format—especially if the drawing has very small areas or fine details, such as the tip of a person’s kamiks. “Sometimes you don’t know when to begin the curve or slope,” they say. The weaver has to decide when to change the shape of the image. If it falls between two warp threads, the curve must be made either smaller or larger.
Colour selection for the initial tapestry in each edition is a co-operative process. The weavers themselves say that selecting colours requires two experienced people or a minimum of three novices. But if there are too many involved in the process, they warn, decision-making becomes difficult. Whether the original artist or the weavers should decide which colours are to be used in the tapestries is often debated. The weavers explain that they like to hear the opinions of the artist who executed the original drawing—most of the time. Geela Keenainak, however, says this doesn’t apply when the artist is a man because “men can’t pick colours for tapestries.” Anna Etoangat, on the other hand, thinks whoever did the drawings, whether male or female, should choose the colours.
Although their work is recognized internationally, the weavers protest that they are not so special but simply possess a specialized skill. And they say other qualifications—the ability to co-operate with the other weavers and to be “a good person”—are just as important. From the earliest days, entry or “membership” in the shop has been democratically decided, with the weavers voting on applicants.
When the weavers consider new employees, they look for women who do not easily get frustrates. Weaving a large 60-inch tapestry can be very tiring, especially if the image is at the edge and the weaver must reach all the way over the loom. The weavers say they look for people who are patient, good people who are skilled with their hands.
This article was based on the research and text prepared for a book on the Pangnirtung Weave Shop, commissioned by the Government of the Northwest Territories.
It was originally published in the Spring 1989 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.
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