Employment opportunities in Pangnirtung throughout the 1960s were limited and the communities needed a focus to create local jobs and industry. The Pangnirtung Eskimo Co-operative was formed in May of 1968 and Gary Magee, an arts and crafts officer with the department of Indian and Northern Affairs’ Industrial Division, arrived in August that year to help the co-op establish an arts and crafts program.
In March 1969, Karen Bulow Ltd., a weaving company based in Montreal, was granted the first of three one-year contracts by the department of Indian and Northern Affairs to establish a “training pilot program in weaving.” Don Stuart, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art with a diverse background in fibre and industrial arts, was hired in June as the project’s manager. The Montreal facilities of Karen Bulow Ltd. were used to conduct research for the project, including work on the development of lichen dyes.
Stuart arrived in Pangnirtung in February 1970 and the arts and crafts building quickly became a mecca for a wide variety of artisans. Magee had already begun printmaking programs and encouraged handicrafts, carving and jewellery work. Carvers came and went. Soon, weavers joined the others, working side-by-side in cramped quarters. Before long, the shop became a focal point for the community.
Stuart hired three women and set about training them to weave. Because he did not speak Inuktitut, he taught the techniques by demonstration. “I made up one warp and dropped it on the first loom. Made up another warp and dropped it on the second loom. ‘Seamed up’ the first warp, first loom. Meanwhile, all those eyes were carefully watching,” he says. “It soon became apparent that the young women were mastering the technique of simple weaving with remarkable ease,” reads his 1971 report on the project.
Magee remembers that the community’s reaction to the Weave Shop was very positive in the early days. “There were public meetings and everyone was invited to see what the project was all about. Stuart showed examples of the work and talked about plans for the future.” Magee remembers people being excited about the prospect of employment in the shop and the potential for its long-term development.
Recalling the atmosphere, Stuart refers to the shop’s vibrancy, saying it was the weavers’ second home and it gave them a sense of importance and identity. “The project was unique,” he says. “It was very prestigious for the women. There was nothing like it anywhere else in the world.” The shop was open 24 hours a day, Stuart says. “I made a map and put pins in it showing where our tapestries and other products were marketed. It was very exciting.”
“There were quite a few jobs for men,” Stuart says, “but the women’s role was fast changing. They no longer had to work to keep their men outfitted for a traditional lifestyle of hunting and there was a desperate need for employment.” Soon, he increased his original staff of three weavers to seven.
Along with its economic accomplishments, the Weave Shop also was developing successfully in artistic directions. Ted Steeves, owner of Karen Bulow Ltd., remembers some of the good times from the early days when Stuart passed paper and pens around the community and got back some very interesting work, including some of the shop’s first drawings from Malaya Akulukjuk and Elisapee Ishulutak.
Stuart remembers great moments as the shop began to gain recognition. “Within the first few months, the Commissioner of Scouts came in with a group of people on a tour of the North. He was so excited [about the Weave Shop] that we ended up with an order for about 500 sashes for the Boy Scouts for the upcoming jamboree in Churchill, MB, in June 1970.”
The Queen received the shop’s first blanket, in July 1970 during her visit to Iqaluit commemorating the centennial year of the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut). “It was so cold,” recalls Stuart, who was at the presentation, “that when the blanket was presented, she put it on and wrapped it around her knees right away. Usually gifts are passed on to the Lady in Waiting who tends to these things, and she was, in fact, reaching for the blanket. But the Queen ignored her. His Royal Highness, Prince Phillip, reached over to touch the blanket and I could hear her say “No. It’s mine!”
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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