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Upcycling: old fur coats become fodder for Inuit seamstresses

If all goes well, Inuit seamstresses in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, could soon be refashioning those old fur coats gathering dust in southern closets into warm clothes for the family, a form of recycling known as 'upcycling.'

‘The fur is what keeps them warm,’ says mother and seamstress Colleen Nivingalok

'It's a lot warmer to make your own stuff,' says Helen Himiak, who’s part of a sewing group in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, that gets together twice a week to teach traditional sewing skills. 'We go through a lot of fur, and it's pretty expensive.' (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

A pair of women have teamed up to find a solution for those old fur coats in the back of many closets.

Gail Pettinger of Victoria, B.C., is collecting the coats for Inuit women who’ll refashion them into warm clothes for the family — a form of recycling known as “upcycling.”

Myste Anderson is in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, where she hopes to distribute unused fur coats to Inuit seamstresses who will refashion them into coats, mitts and even boots for the whole family. (Facebook)
A pilot project this year, called Furs to the Arctic, will bring a handful of old coats to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, by plane. Next year, Pettinger hopes to launch a fur drive and send even more coats north by ship.

Her partner in the project, Myste Anderson, lives in Kugluktuk, where she plans to distribute the coats through local sewing circles.

“Women down there often have furs handed down by their mothers or their grandmothers," Anderson says. "They have meaning and they have value, but most women aren’t wearing them, because number one, it’s not the climate for it, and then there’s also the political climate around it.”

'I would cut them up and make mitts. Multiple pairs of mitts,' says Colleen Nivingalok, who, like many Inuit women, makes parkas for her four children. (Mitch Wiles/CBC)
By contrast, fur is highly valued in Nunavut, where adults and children alike can be seen in distinctive handmade parkas: some with the pointy-hooded patterns Inuit have worn for decades; others with hockey logos painstakingly sewn in by loving hands.

All have one thing in common: fur around the hood to keep the face warm, even when the temperature dips below -40 C. Many women also sew fur mitts and kamiks, or Inuit style boots.

'It's a lot warmer to make your own stuff'

“I would cut them up and make mitts, multiple pairs of mitts,” says Colleen Nivingalok, who, like many Inuit women, makes homemade parkas for her four children.

Nuka Bolt says sewing with fur is part of Inuit culture, both in the past and the present. 'We keep our traditions alive through sewing and get-togethers.' (Mitch Wiles/CBC)
“It’s well worth it because I can spend $400 on materials and each of them gets a warm coat,” she says.

“It’s a lot warmer to make your own stuff,” says Helen Himiak, who’s part of a sewing group in Kugluktuk that gets together twice a week to teach traditional sewing skills. “We go through a lot of fur, and it’s pretty expensive.”

Nivingalok uses furs from wolves and wolverines hunted by her husband. Those without that kind of access go to the store, where a small sealskin sells for $140.

Nuka Bolt is another seamstress. She says sewing with fur is part of the culture, both in the past and the present.

“We keep our traditions alive through sewing and get-togethers,” she says.

“It feels good inside knowing that you could create something that someone would use to keep them warm.”

Anderson says she hopes the idea will catch on, partnering people in different cities to different communities in the Arctic. 

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