2 women accidentally start puppet factory in Hay River, N.W.T.

Kim Lea and Trish Laye are currently working to finish their third order of puppets for the South Slave Divisional Education Council. They will have made 92 puppets when they are finished.

South Slave education council using puppets to help students learn Indigenous languages

Kim Lea and Trish Laye enlisted their family to help when the South Slave Divisional Education Council ordered dozens of puppets. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Two women have inadvertently started a makeshift puppet factory in their Hay River home.

Kim Lea and Trish Laye are currently working to finish their third order of puppets for the South Slave Divisional Education Council, which will have them making their 92nd puppet.

Brent Kaulback, assistant superintendent for the education council, said a teacher in Inuvik inspired him to bring the puppets into the classroom to help teach Indigenous languages.

"I looked at [her puppets] and basically just fell in love with them, and just thought of all the possibilities these puppets could create in terms of language in our classrooms," said Kaulback.

"These puppets only speak their Indigenous language. They don't speak English at all."

The puppets wear clothes that a 12- to 18-month-old baby would wear. Lea says it can be difficult to find baby clothes that an elder would wear. (Submitted by Trish Laye)

He contacted Kim to see if she would be willing to make a set of puppets for students in the region.

Kim agreed to make the set, and enlisted the help of her niece, Trish.

Trish said it was a great situation because years ago she had wanted to make puppets, but she never got around to it.

Kim said they started the project not realizing how it was going to turn out. But now, people love the puppets and they've got a lot of orders to complete. 

Shortly after the women made the first set of puppets, the education board asked for 10 more sets, which took them between two-to-three weeks to complete. And after that, 35 more sets. 

When all is said and done, there will be 92 elder puppets across schools in the N.W.T.

When they made the first set, they made each puppet from start to finish, but now with the higher volume of orders, they have an assembly-line system. They've even got help from other family members.

Kim and Trish make the puppet parts themselves. They say although the process is the same every time, each puppet comes out slightly different. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Trish said she feels "honoured" to be a part of the project.

She played a big part in coming up with the initial puppet design, experimenting with head shapes and sewing patterns. Trish said the first prototype puppet came out looking a little alien, so they made a few adjustments to come up with the design they now use.

Trish is in charge of making the puppets' heads and Kim sews the limbs, while also finding and making their clothes. She sews moccasins for all of the puppets, but for the outfits she relies on the thrift store, friends and Facebook.

The first grandma that we actually did looked like my grandmother.- Kim Lea

"It's been challenging too, to find little children's clothing that looks like something an elder would wear," said Kim.

The puppets fit into clothes made for 12 to 18 month old infants.

While it may seem like a lot of fun to make puppets, it's also a lot of work and Kim said she can be a bit of a procrastinator.

"There are moments of great joy, especially when you're putting the clothes on them and you're finishing them," said Kim. 

In order to fill the last two orders she said she had to pull all-nighters.

"In those moments I hate puppets," she laughed.

The 1st puppet

"Amazingly, the first puppet, the first grandma that we actually did, looked like my grandmother [Mary Rose Sabourin]," said Kim.

Lea says the first grandma they made ended up bearing a striking resemblance to her own grandmother, Mary Rose Sabourin. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC and submitted by Trish Laye)

In fact, she said they frequently see similarities between their puppets and elders they know.

As the two women from Hay River  are finishing up their most recent order, Kim is saying, "Heck no" to selling their puppets to the public. 

Trish was a little more open to the idea of continuing the puppet factory, but she needs a little bit of a break before she can come to a full decision, she said.