Newhalen, Alaska – Before she retired, 62-year-old Funa set aside some money – just enough to buy the supplies she’d need to pursue her love of sewing.
Now, the former school librarian who lives in the remote Alaskan village of Newhalen works under bright spools of thread that hang from the walls of her sewing room.
There are rows of scissors, each labelled with her name, drawers of beads and buttons and a small walk-in closet with neat piles of colourful fabric. Finished quilts are folded beneath pictures of her children and grandchildren.
The room, an extension to the house she has lived in since she was a child, was built by her husband.
“This is my happy place in the wintertime,” she says.
During the winter months, when temperatures can drop as low as -30 degrees Celsius and the sun only skims the horizon before disappearing again, Funa spends much of her time indoors sewing.
She makes kuspuks, a hooded garment with large pockets that Alaska Natives typically wear for formal gatherings such as weddings, school graduation ceremonies and church services, as well as for more everyday tasks.
Their practical design makes them ideal for the subsistence lifestyle that is so central to survival in this village of roughly 180 residents. Located at the mouth of Newhalen River, the community is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Between it and the neighbouring village of Iliamna, there are just two stores, which sell everything – from hardware to bananas. Groceries must be flown in from the city of Anchorage, 320km away, and that is reflected in their prices. So residents get what they can from the land and the lakes.
“They have the hoods on and you put them on your head and it will keep the mosquitoes from getting your neck and your head. And they have nice big pockets,” Funa explains. “They are good for when you go out berry picking.”
Funa is part of a growing cottage industry of Alaskans – both Native and non-Native – who have begun sewing and selling kuspuks in their communities or online.
According to Aaron Leggett, the curator of Alaska History and Culture and the Anchorage Museum, Yup’ik and Inupiat peoples – two subsets of Alaska Natives – were the first to sew fabric kuspuks roughly 100 years ago. They used material from flour sacks and wore them as a protective layer over their fur clothing – a necessity at the time in Alaska’s frigid climate – the lighter cloth being easier to clean. Before flour sacks were available, kuspuks were made out of animal gut or skins.
Since then, other tribal groups have adopted the kuspuk and they are now popularly worn across the state.
“It’s [become] sort of an overall form of Native identity in the last 20 years,” says Leggett.
These days, Facebook groups allow designers to exchange ideas and sell their products online, while members of the Alaska State Legislature wear them to work once a week for “Kuspuk Friday”.
The art is increasingly popular in villages like Funa’s, where generations of women are sewing kuspuks to celebrate their culture and to connect with loved ones.
During the long winter months, women gather for sewing nights, sharing tips, their sewing machines steadily drumming on bright swatches of fabric as younger members of their families look on and the snow falls outside.