Tanya Sayer is more than a seamstress: the Regina woman started Spirit Wear, a business selling ribbons, skirts and shirts for use in traditional ceremony.

"I don't do this for a name or to get rich, that's for sure. I do it for the ceremony."

A few years ago, Sayer was just beginning her spiritual journey. She had been an injection drug user and that addiction left her sick in body and spirit. She credited Regina elder Archie Weenie with saving her life by helping her connect with her culture and leading her down a better path. 

As traditional ceremony was becoming an important part of her life, Sayer wanted a ribbon skirt to wear in the sweat lodge. She paid someone to make her a skirt and she never got it.

Her anger about being ripped off prompted her to get a sewing machine so she could make her own spirit wear.

Tanya Sayer and skirts

Sayer says she enjoys going to a round dance and seeing her work being enjoyed by people who understand the significance of the clothing. (Nichole Huck/CBC )

With the help of some YouTube videos, Sayer taught herself how to sew. She didn't quite have it all figured out when she made her first skirt, which she gifted to her grandmother.

"It was a mess," laughed Sayer, "but she kept it anyways."

The sewing machine helped me to get through those times. - Tanya Sayer 

Sayer said knowing the meaning of the skirt and drawing upon the help of the grandmothers has helped her battle her addiction and in life as a single parent. 

"It has empowered me to focus on my sewing. The sewing machine helped me to get through those times."

Sewing life lessons

Sayer said the act of sewing has taught her some important lessons. 

"If you are off, your sewing is going to be off. The sewing machine will teach you to sit down and manage your energy, and to focus and be gentle with yourself."

Sayer no longer needs to use pins when she sews — she said sewing has taught her to trust herself.

"You know what you are doing and you don't let anybody get in the way of that."

Sayer said there are times when women have been in tears when they've picked up their ribbon skirt.

"They understand that skirt, it connects them to who they are, it strengthens them."

Sharing her teachings

Sayer has started teaching a ribbon skirt-making class through the University of Regina's Centre for Continuing Education.

In one of her recent classes, she had two young indigenous women who are in foster care. 

Those kids were empowered, they felt good, they were connected. - Tanya Sayer

Sayer smiled as she recounted how the girls "went crazy with the ribbons." She helped them with their skirts, passing on much more than just lessons in sewing. 

"I get an opportunity to plant seeds these kids have never had: little things about self-esteem, about slowing down, and little seeds about culture and ceremony and the sweat."

She said the best part of teaching has been seeing the girls try on their skirts for the first time. 

"You should have seen her light up. Those kids were empowered, they felt good, they were connected. Even if it was just for a few seconds, they were themselves — they were little grannies."