Years ago, in Yellowknife, I saw an exhibit of Gwich’in caribou skin clothing at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. I was enthralled by the gorgeous handwork, the unity of practical and beautiful, and this morning, looking for something else on my shelves, I found the book I bought at the time, Long Ago Sewing We Will Remember, by Judy Thompson and Ingrid Kritsch. It tells the story of Gwich’in women brought together to sew traditional summer clothing using some 19th century examples from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (later renamed the Canadian Museum of History). It’s worth looking for, 143 in the Mercury Series. Women carefully examine the quillwork and beadwork used as embellishment and realize that many of them are things they’ve adapted over the years. They know how to do this work even though perhaps they haven’t worked with skins for some time.
I see great possibilities with this technique [porcupine quillwork]. I think what I’d start off with is just putting it in tiny places, like the collar or the pocket, before I start anything extravagant. I’d like to just keep things simple. Even in my fabric art, I think I see possibilities. It would make a pretty good rainbow or Northern Lights. (Margaret Donovan, Tsiigehtchic, 2001)
I’ve been working on my indigo quilt this weekend, having replenished my shell button supply at the wonderful Button Button.
I use akoya buttons but if I had unlimited funds for such things, I’d choose abalone for their green-y splendor. And I know what Margaret Donovan means. I’ve been concluding my quilted spirals with a single button, using varying sizes depending on what feels right.
But what I’d really love to do, and maybe work up to trying, is trying to gather firelight into the stitching, trying for the kind of light I see looking into water. The Gwich’in women had each other to work with and I sew alone, in my quiet kitchen. This work is so meditative. I stitch and release what I can do nothing about, I gather all my hopes and my love for the world into each spiral. Some days I come into the kitchen and see the quilt waiting in a wicker chair by the door and I’m filled with pleasure at the thought of time spent sewing, thinking, and yes, in a way remembering.