After almost two years of work, Kodiak’s New Skin Sewers group has finally finished their traditional Alutiiq caribou parka. The final garment will make its public debut this Thursday at the Alutiiq Museum, but KMXT’s Brianna Gibbs was able to meet up with the sewers last week, as they put in the garment’s final stitches.
On Thursday night, in the quiet craft room of the Kodiak Public Library, a small group of women gather around an elaborate fur parka. In between carefully placed stitches, they laugh and share stories, bonding over the garment that has taken up a sizeable portion of their past two years.
“We are closing up the sides of the parka, so that’s an overhand stitch until you get to these tabs, and then you do a running stitch through that, and then go back to your overhand stitch on the other side. This is last steps – it’s very exciting.”
That’s Marya Halvorsen, one of four women that applied and were selected to work on the traditional parka, under the direction of lead skin sewer Susan Malutin.
Halvorsen said it’s been months of sometimes literal blood, sweat and tears – learning elaborate stitches on difficult-to-sew traditional materials. But as the final threads are put in place, Halvorsen said it is a product and experience well worth the time and energy.
On Thursday, for the first time, new skin sewer Hanna Sholl was able to dawn the finished project.
Sholl danced and sang as the intricate garment swayed with her movements. Patches of carefully stitched fur and meticulously embroidered animal hides decorate the parka, much like they would have done so on traditional clothing worn centuries ago.
“I can’t help but think about our ancestors – the grandmothers, maybe the daughters and grand daughters that probably made the original one, but we don’t know for sure.”
That’s Teri Schneider, who worked closely on the project since it began in February 2013.
“So with every stitch I take, I just feel a little more connected to my ancestry and our heritage here on the island.”
Cathy Cordry was the fourth sewer selected for the group, and considered the project an important continuation of Alutiiq culture.
“To bring the traditional crafts into the modern age and to share that knowledge with the community.”
The project began when the five women and former Alutiiq Museum Director Sven Haakanson traveled to Helsinki, Finland, and examined parkas that were created in the Kodiak area, but transported to Finland in the mid 1800s. Then, studying torn pieces of traditional garments and enlarged photographs, the women spent more than a year recreating and mastering the stitch work that would be needed to create a replica parka.
The group met once or twice a week and even traveled to the villages, allowing middle and high school students an opportunity to work on the piece.
On Thursday night, as the women stared at the final product before them, they commented on how it felt to be finished.
“Bittersweet. I told them tomorrow if they feel they need to talk about it they can call me.”
That last voice was Susan Malutin, who led the sewers through the project. She said the parka includes caribou hide and fur, as well as dried bear intestines and other traditional materials.
“We have the ermine, which is the white pieces of fur, we also have land otter and we have sea otter.”
Likewise, each of the women that worked on the project embellished their own hair somewhere in the piece.
“To give it its continued spirit just like they would have traditionally.”
The final product is quite literally wearable art, and folks will have an opportunity to see it for the first time in public this Thursday during the Alutiiq Museum’s fall lecture series. The skin sewers will present their finished product and discuss the work that went into it, sharing photos and steps along the way.
The lecture will begin at 7 p.m. in the Alutiiq Museum.