Nfld. & Labrador

Bring back the boot, says Nain seamstress seeking sealskin skills

A Nain woman wants to teach the traditional skills required to make black sealskin bottom boots.
Peggy Andersen fears the sealskin boots are a dying tradition. (Jacob Barker)

A Nain woman wants to teach the traditional skills required to make black sealskin bottom boots, a dying art in Labrador's Inuit communities.

"There were older women in the community who did [make them] and I used to wonder, how do they do that? Why are they doing that?" said Peggy Andersen.

She hopes to train people to learn the craft of stitching the boot so the tradition can live on.

The sealskin bottom boots are different from the furry kind normally seen, and require a special stitch to make them waterproof. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

The seal bottom boots are not furry like the more common style of sealskin boot.  The fur is removed, and Andersen said there are only a few people left who can do the stitch used to make the boots.

"The waterproof stitch, the black bottom boot stitch is basically lost. It's like our language. The skill wasn't passed on unfortunately," she said.

The stitch, which is crucial to waterproofing the boot, is not easy to make.

It requires a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of skill.- Peggy Andersen

"You put it partially through, sort of in the middle and then you pull it through and then you go to the other piece of the sealskin and you do the same thing. You kind of overlap it but you don't," Andersen explained.

"You make sure that your needle doesn't go through to the other side. Then it would be a hole in the boot. So this way it's sealed."

First the money, then the materials

Andersen said she secured funding through the Tasiujatsoak Trust (established under the Labrador Inuit Land Claim) to hold workshops to teach the traditional skills.

Instructors will come from out of town. Professional seal skin cleaners will also take part, in a learning process that will take days.

"It requires a lot of patience, a lot of time and a lot of skill," Andersen said.

Andersen says the soles on her boots need to be replaced. She got them from her cousin, who got them from someone "up north." (Jacob Barker/CBC)

She also needs to get her hands on some proper pelts to make the boots and she is very specific about the type of pelts she needs.

"I haven't done it myself, but I've asked about it a lot and you need – some people say utjak or utjuasuk. Utjak is the square flipper or the adult square flipper. Utjuasuk is the lassie or the young square flipper," she said.

Andersen lives in Nain and said the pelts would be harder to get there because the sea ice edge is far away from the community. She may try getting them from communities to the south such as Makkovik, Rigolet or Hopedale.

"They have to be killed at a certain time of year. A spring harp is preferable because the skin on those seals are thicker which are better for the bottoms obviously."

'Like wearing slippers all day'

The pair she owns came from a cousin and are one size too small. "But they're ok. They are good for wearing around town."

Andersen said the boots are really comfortable, almost like walking around in bare feet. She tries to wear them whenever she can. 

"I have a pair of duffle liners inside, a pair of thick socks, a pair of double liners and the kamik (boot)," she said.

"It's like wearing slippers all day, very comfy."

The best time to wear them, she said, is when the snow is soft and wet. When it's really cold, the snow is drier and it's hard for the boots to soften up.