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.
All morning I’ve been looking for a knife. A fish knife my father once gave to one of my sons. I thought it was here. For a time it was on my desk and then on the bookshelves in my study. I’m in the process of revising an essay named for it and I want to look at it again and see if I’ve remembered it accurately. But now I can’t find it. While I was looking, I saw my ulu knife, bought in Yellowknife in the spring of 2008. It hangs on a bracket near the sink and I’ve seen it so many times I no longer see it, if that makes sense. I use it sometimes for mincing garlic in large quantities, or herbs; its rocking motion makes such work a pleasure. The uluit are women’s knives, used for skinning animals and cutting meat. They fit the hand beautifully and this one is well-balanced. I love the brass tang, the dry feel of the caribou antler handle, and how something designed well doesn’t need to be changed. Uluit date back to at least 25oo BCE.
So I found a knife I wasn’t looking for but the one I want to hold and measure, well, it’s disappeared.
You kept your knives sharp. Occasionally I’d sit on the basement stairs and hear you running them along a whetstone kept in a wooden box. I loved the smell of the oil, which I inhaled like perfume. There were hunting knives, each with its special sheath you made. My brothers received knives for gifts but they never took care of them the way you did. There was a thin knife for cleaning fish right on the spot so the guts could be tossed back to the water. And another knife, very sharp, with a blade suitable for filleting and a serrated part for taking off a head or tail. It could cut through thick bone. It has a homemade handle of some kind of antler, shaped to fit the hand, and neatly rivetted. You gave it to my second son, thinking him a kindred soul. The thing is, he isn’t. He doesn’t care about fishing (you told me you’d like him to have your inflatable boat) but cares about getting along – when you talk, he listens, and you’ve mistaken listening for a shared passion for fishing. (He won’t eat fish.) I always wanted to be taken seriously, wanted to learn fly-fishing, but I also wanted to defend my ground, say my piece, and you couldn’t bear anyone talking when you thought yours should be the only voice in the conversation. My son doesn’t care about the knife, he left it on a shelf, but I care about it and have it on my desk so I can run my thumb along the rough chalky end of the antler handle and think about the places the knife might have been – the Cowichan River; lakes strung like stars up the spine of Vancouver Island, one even called Stella; rivers and lakes in the north; rarely the chuck, but even the lakes near my home on the Sechelt Peninsula where you’d take my children out in your inflatable boat and teach the patience of the hook. The patience must have come with age because I remember only your temper, your irritation at being asked for something, the bitter words about ingratitude. Yet they sat with you for hours and thought you a perfect grandfather.