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'A big achievement': Come Sew With Auntie teaches parka making in Behchokǫ̀

Mercedes Rabesca brought parka maker and artist Dorathy Wright to Behchokǫ̀ for a special sewing workshop. In just a few days, 10 people finished their parka projects, and are already inspired for their next sewing projects.

Sewing circles bring people together to share knowledge with aspiring sewers

A 15 year old girl from Behchoko, N.W.T. holds up her orange and yellow printed parka that her little sister will wear to school this winter.
Hannah Beaulieu said she was proud to complete her parka and hopes more youth will come out to Come Sew With Auntie workshops. (Avery Zingel/CBC )

Sewing machines whirr away and the room is full of laughter as a group of ladies work hard to finish their parkas at the Kǫ̀ Gocho Centre in Behchokǫ last Friday.

Mercedes Rabesca goes from machine to machine, checking if anyone needs help, while Dorathy Wright, a Gwich'in quilter and artist imparts her expertise and knowledge to each sewer for the week-long event.

This is the first time Come Sew With Auntie is holding a parka making workshop.

During the pandemic, Mercedes Rabesca started hosting sewing circles to bring people together, create more knowledge holders and teachers, and build opportunities for employment. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Rabesca said she is "trying to bring a more traditional Dene mixture of lessons to the community so everyone has an opportunity to sew."

Participants at Come Sew With Auntie, have made beaver mittens, moccasins and mukluks and beaded items like popsockets for phones. 

Rabesca usually sources materials and applies for grants to run workshops. This time, she received support from Tłı̨chǫ Government Community Wellness department. 

The department donated 10 sewing machines, which Rabesca said will enable her to offer more workshops in the future, like making hunting bags.

Someone also anonymously donated three Singer sewing machines, she said.

Rabesca said Hannah Beaulieu, 15, who used a sewing machine for the first time at the event, is a fast learner.

"I'm proud," said Beaulieu. "Making this jacket actually made my day."

She's giving the parka to her little sister, and she said making it was hard work. 

"[My mom] says don't give up, you got this. So she gave me the encouragement to do this and I finished it perfectly," said Beaulieu.

Felicia Beaulieu said she always tells her daughter Hannah to sign up for every workshop so she can pick up traditional skills from people in the community. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Her mother, Felicia Beaulieu, said Hannah's relatives are already calling with orders.

"I'm one proud momma," she said. 

"She finished her own first parka. Now she can make us all jackets for Christmas ... Now I gotta get her materials and supplies because she wants to start up her own business."

In the Youth Centre in Behchoko, people have been gathering in a room full of laughter and the sound of sewing machines. It's "Come sew With Auntie." a program that's bringing traditional sewing skills to more and more people in the community. The program was started by Mercedes Rabesca who's realizing that it's creating more knowledge holders, and even building opportunities for employment.

'Instruction was really, really good'

When Mary Adele Mackenzie saw this workshop advertised on Facebook, she jumped at the opportunity.

She is a beginner at sewing, and took the workshop with her sister.

"She's also my teacher," Mackenzie said.

Sisters Melissa Nitsiza and Mary Adele Mackenzie show off the parkas they made for their husbands. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Mackenzie is making a parka for her husband so that he can go skidooing — he even had a hand in the design, asking for extra long sleeves.

"I think I did good," she laughs.

Mary Adele Mackenzie finishes up her husband's parka on Friday at the Kǫ̀ Gocho Centre. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Mackenzie said the parka was hard work, but the workshop has made her eager to start her next project.

"The instruction was really, really good," said Mackenzie.

After finishing up her parka, Mary Adele Mackenzie begins marking out patterns so that she and her sister can make themselves their own parkas. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Dorathy Wright, the Gwich'in artist and instructor, made sewing her full-time business in 2014.

She flew out from Norman Wells to teach the workshop, which she says is a gateway to traditional skills, and entrepreneurship. 

Wright encourages artists to get connected with the NWT Arts Program so they can learn more about accessing the materials they need, learn how to fairly price their items and even get to larger markets and fashion shows like Indigenous Fashion Week. 

Melissa Mackenzie, Mary Adele Mackenzie, Mercedes Rabesca look on as Dorathy Wright shows how to expertly line up the fur on the hood of Melissa's parka. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Since hosting this workshop, she already has been asked to come to other Tłı̨chǫ communities to run similar events. 

Instructors like Rabesca and Wright are there to help troubleshoot sewing projects so that even newcomers to sewing, can overcome even the hardest tasks, like lining up the fabric.

Carole Tinqui said she always signs up for Come Sew With Auntie workshops.

"It's a good learning experience," she said. 

Carole Tinqui makes a parka for her eight-year-old daughter Khloe. She picked pink ribbon so the colours pop on the fabric. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
Carole Tinqui, left, and her daughter Khloe show off the parka. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avery Zingel

Reporter

Avery Zingel is a reporter with CBC North in Yellowknife. She is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political Science. Email her at avery.zingel@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @averyzingel.

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