Nunavut's 96-year-old seamstress models her own clothes, advocates for traditional designs

At 96, Qaapik still has a dream — to continue teaching youth the value of traditional Inuit clothing and the skills to create it.

‘I want to keep traditional clothing alive,’ says Qaapik from Arctic Bay, Nunavut

Qaapik Attagutsiak is passionate about traditional clothing. She's been a seamstress for over 86 years. (submitted by Kataisee Attagutsiak )

​Every morning, 96-year-old Qaapik Attagutsiak, wakes up in her 10-by-16 foot hut, heated by a seal oil lamp. She perches herself up on her table-top mattress, surrounded by trinkets and miscellanea, and begins to sew. 

Qaapik weaves tough animal skins into intricate, traditional Inuit designs.

Qaapik is the oldest living person in her small community of around 800 people, according to her daughter. (submitted by Kataisee Attagutsiak )

"The very first time I ever made clothing professionally, I was about nine or 10 years old," said Qaapik in Inuktitut, translated by her daughter Kataisee Attagutsiak

"My mother gave me an old caribou parka. I cut it up, made the pattern and made caribou pants for my younger sister."

That was the beginning of her life as a seamstress. Today, she's an advocate for traditional clothing and culture.

"I want to keep traditional clothing alive," said Qaapik.

'It's part of my existence to sew'

Qaapik says her proudest moment was when she was just beginning to learn the art of sewing.

"My mom gave me fresh caribou skin. I skinned it myself… I made my own patterns and I made my own pants. My mom was incredibly proud of me."

Qaapik scraping animal skin which will later be dried before she sews. (submitted by Kataisee Attagutsiak )

She now donates her clothing to hunters, and gives them as gifts to her children and grandchildren. She says she sometimes works on requests from around the world for sealskin mitts and boots.

She recalled the time she made a pair of caribou leg pants as gifts. These are very delicate, requiring careful sewing of about 40 pieces of caribou leg skin. "I only made those twice in my life and they were for gifts."

Qaapik and her daughters dressed in traditional clothing. (submitted by Kataisee Attagutsiak)

And for the past several years, Qaapik has been strutting down the runway, modelling her own creations at her community's annual Christmas fashion show.

This year, she showcased her Atigi, literally meaning the fur is inside, the skin is outside in Inuktitut.
Qaapik modelling her Atigi - a traditional piece she made in 1970. (Facebook/Niore Iqalukjuak)

"That's a very unique, traditional clothing. I made it a long while ago, in 1970. That's why it's so rare," she said. "It's something you don't see everyday."

Qaapik is the oldest living person in her small community of around 800 people, according to her daughter.

Still, even after 86 years of sewing, Qaapik says her hands and joints are still in great shape.

"It's an automatic thing for me that I don't feel any pain," said Qaapik, adding that it gives her peace of mind.

"It's a part of my life. It's part of my existence to sew."

'She's always teaching youth.'

At her advanced age, Qaapik still has a dream.

It has remained the same for a while: to continue teaching youth the value of traditional Inuit clothing and sewing skills.

"Traditional clothing can be helpful for the future of our youth to make sure their brains are being used for what it should be — not for drugs and alcohol," said Qaapik.

From Igloolik to Iqaluit to Rankin Inlet, Qaapik has travelled around Nunavut as a teacher.
Kataisee poses with her mother Qaapik Attagutsiak. (submitted by Kataisee Attagutsiak)

"She's always teaching youth," said Kataisee, Qaapik's daughter.

"Her entire living life, she doesn't need to be asked, she's always teaching."

Qaapik's next teaching trip is to Pond Inlet in February.

"What is important for me is to keep our traditional way of making clothing alive," said Qaapik. "We should never forget [this]. We should never forget the ancestors that made us survive to today and the skills they have."