Sewing has sustained Inuit since time immemorial. From women hunched over their seal and caribou skins cutting, designing and sewing their clothing with sinew and bone needles to women hunched over modern sewing machines stitching modern materials into timeless clothing designs—such as amautiit (Inuit women’s baby carriers) and japait (winter parkas)—wearable art is the norm for Inuit sewers. Now, women in Arviat, NU, (and all across Inuit Nunangat) are transitioning again, moving to make and sell pieces on online platforms such as Facebook.
Arviat seamstress Charlotte St. John first got into sewing as a way to make her clothes fit properly. “I made my own adjustments because I’m a smaller frame,” she says. “Plus I liked designing—it’s your own creativity that kicks in and you try really different and new things.”
“One day, it just clicked to me,” says Gabai Kaludjak, another Arviat seamstress. “I took apart one of my old parkas, and took some material from my mom’s sewing supply stash and just did my own thing.” There is something about the first time you try to bring what is in your mind to life: getting an amautik or a parka to fit perfectly around the waist, where the arms won’t be too big and the hood will sit just right, takes effort and patience.
Charlotte was taught by her grandmother, mother and aunts as well as her teacher when she attended residential school in Churchill, MB. Gabai taught herself with the help and mentorship from her own mom. I began sewing at a young age, when I watched how seamstresses cut and sewed garments together. One of the seamstresses I saw at work, while visiting with her grandchildren, was Charlotte St. John herself.
Ujarak Appadoo Aujaq amaut, Heading into Fall 2021 Amautiga Collection (2021) Double sided prequilted cotton, bias tape, ric-rac and acrylic yarn Courtesy the artist
Over time a seamstress develops a certain style to their garments, just as any artist of any medium does. One can look at a garment and easily say, “Oh, that’s by Charlotte St. John,” or “Yeah, that looks like a Gabai Kaludjak piece.” From afar it’s usually the way the bias tapes are placed, or how the colour combinations are integrated that identifies a piece. Up close, an avid seamstress can easily tell whose stitches are whose.
When asked if she has a certain style she is known for, Charlotte shares that amautiit are her thing. “I made a lot of amautiit because it’s a lot of work—most people don’t want to make their own,” she says. “I was more prone to making amautiit because I enjoyed making them and designing them, and colour coordinating all the trims, the ties, the fur and colours.”
Gabai on the other hand doesn’t have one specific garment. “A lot of my inspiration comes from other seamstresses,” she says. “Other times I just imagine it all in my head and try to make out how I imagined the designs.”
For me, I love the simple, timeless look of the amautiit that I make. The floral patterns of the prequilted materials I work with dictate my colours and designs, as in this aujaq amautik. Before being introduced to manmade materials, many Inuit garments were made of animal skins like caribou, seal and rabbit and furs like fox and polar bear. The hues of the animals’ skins and furs dictated what colours and shades seamstresses had to work with.
Modern designers now use bias tapes and ric-rac that come in all different colours and shades, creating clothing outside the neutral colour palette sewers were once restricted to. The base of this floral pattern is navy, and the flowers themselves have hints of yellow and light blue with teal leaves. When choosing what trim to add I look at what colours pop out from afar. I then look at the detailing and add around it. To make the colours pop here, I added white ric-rac on top of the muted mustard bias tape.
Although Gabai doesn’t have one specific garment, she does create amautiit with me as part of Amautiga, the small business that I founded in the fall of 2016 after the birth of my eldest child—when I needed an amauti myself and couldn’t find one. I started the business to make and sell custom amauti online, and in the spring of 2021 brought on Gabai as a partner to bear some of the load of owning a small business.
Her aujaq amauti for the Spring/Summer 2021 Piruqsiaq Amautiga Collection follows a similar placement of bias tape and ric-rac as other Amautiga designs, but the matching of the trims to the floral fabric shows Gabai’s unique approach to colour. “I get a lot of my inspiration for colours from Pinterest,” she says. “[When] I use the main colour, for example, I search ‘navy palette’ and it comes up with different palettes and colours it would look good with. And then I work with what material I have in those colours.”
Gabai Kaludjak Aujaq amaut,Spring/Summer 2021 Piruqsiaq Amautiga Collection (2021) Double sided prequilted cotton, bias tape, ric-rac and acrylic yarn Courtesy the artist
Charlotte shared how she enjoys playing around with colour, but also how much colour-use has continued to change since her start in the ’40s, affecting not just the colour itself but also how the garment was sewn. “We used to use duffle for lining; now we use holofil and different cover materials,” she shares. “The cover they used back then was made mainly white, so if [it] was detachable you could easily wash the cover—the lining might shrink as it was made of wool.” The introduction of more coloured outer fabrics and easier to wash materials made it more convenient to sew inner and outer materials together rather than apart.
Charlotte has since been able to work with a variety of materials to make garments, like this amauti made of seal skin, leather, fox fur. Woven trims give a modern twist, since these materials would not have been readily available prior to the introduction of manmade materials.
Charlotte St. John Amauti (2021) Sealskin, leather, fox fur and woven trim Courtesy the artist
This amautik is one of her more recent ones sold online, but Charlotte started out selling in person, making garments “by request for people I knew.” In the beginning, she says, “I could make amauti [and] I could make japa (parka), so I started slowly doing it [while I was] home with my kids.”
Now, however, Charlotte no longer takes requests. “I just want to sew what I want to sew and then just put it on the market, on Facebook. I don’t have too much trouble selling whatever I make.” While the transition was hard initially, by sewing what she likes she doesn’t have to make custom garments for people she has never met before, which could be difficult to fit properly.
Gabai and myself, on the other hand, started out selling garments on Facebook. After practicing and sewing for herself and family, Gabai started posting them on Facebook, “sometimes on my personal page, sometimes on sell/swap pages.” Selling through Facebook has proven to be a good way to reach a larger audience than selling purely through word of mouth, like Charlotte initially had to do. It’s a matter of what each of us had available at the time.
Just like Charlotte, we found it difficult to fit garments properly when sewing for others online. So Amautiga recently switched to making a set of pre-made garments in the form of small collections, letting us skip the need to measure a virtual client, just like Charlotte.
Inuit seamstresses have come a long way in their sewing skills and artform. Although materials and places to sell have changed, sewing in Arviat continues to be both a necessity and a creative outlet that I hope will continue to be passed down for generations to come.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.