An Inupiaq Woman Sews her First Oogilhaq
I am an Inupiaq woman. My mom’s side of the family are all native to the beautiful state of Alaska, which makes us Inuit, or the indigenous people of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. We belong to the Inupiaq tribe from the village of Unalakleet, on the west coast of Alaska. My grandma grew up there, and was the oldest girl of fourteen children, seven of whom she helped raise alongside my Amouk (great-grandma).
Sewing has been a part of my family history for generations. When I say it like that, it sounds like a perfectly-honed craft that we’re all experts at, but the truth of it is that it was first born out of necessity. As a girl, Grandma would pick out dresses from the Sears catalogue that was passed around the village, and Amouk would make them from printed flour sacks on their old treadle sewing machine. Amouk taught Grandma how to sew, of course. With that many children, I imagine Amouk wouldn’t have been able to keep up on her own!
Amouk sewing while my mom watches
Throughout her life, Grandma sewed herself all kinds of clothes: from skirts for work, to dresses she could wear to church. When she had her own eldest daughter, my mom, she taught her how to sew, too. Grandma made my mom’s wedding dress, and even her own dress that she wore to the wedding! Around 1977, my mom purchased her own sewing machine: a Singer Stylist 534. The Stylist was advertised as a zig-zag, free-arm sewing machine with a buttonholer! Forty-four years later, I was able to call that machine my own. My mom's meticulous nature allowed her to gift it to me with the original manual.
My sewing machine that used to be mom’s
When I was young, Mom and Grandma both took turns teaching me to sew. Grandma by hand, my mom by hand and machine. The Stylist was the very machine I sewed my first stitches on that weren’t by hand. To be honest, I was too busy being a rambunctious kid to care much about the patience and time it took to sew anything more than a tear in a dog toy. I remember I had just one stroke of brilliance to sew together a tote bag, which I’m sure was very poorly done, as I didn’t use a pattern, and my favorite stitch, that I liked to use everywhere, was the zig-zag. I wish I could see that bag now, just for a laugh.
In November of 2019, though, I got it in my head that I wanted to try garment sewing for the first time. So I walked on down to the local fabric shop with my friend Jordan, and told the woman behind the counter that I wanted to sew my first piece of clothing. Well, she marched me up and down the rows of fabric and notions, and picked out everything I needed, after we settled on my first ever pattern being the Decades of Style 1950’s PB&J Skirt. I do distinctly remember her asking if I wouldn't rather start with an apron, but I was all confidence and determination, despite having never read a pattern in my whole life. Jordan helped me pick out the buttons. Once I’d gotten home and started reading the instructions, I realized I’d put the cart before the horse, and took to the University of YouTube to teach me all the sewing jargon I had never paid attention to before in my life. Baste, stay stitch, hem stitch, interfacing, facing, selvedge, grade. I stumbled my way through that skirt and made all kinds of mistakes, but I learned a ton. I haven't stopped since.
I’m glad I waited so long to make my first oogilhaq. I was able to practice and learn so many skills that I needed to really do it justice. All throughout my life, Grandma has been making kuspaqs for me and just about every member of my family.
My sisters wearing oogilhaqs made by Grandma
To make one for myself feels like such a rite of passage. An oogilhaq is an Inupiaq summer dress and is characterized by having a hood, long sleeves, a pocket along the center front, and a ruffle at the bottom. Kuspaqs are like the jacket-form of oogilhaq, with a zipper down the center, and no ruffle. They are often made of a light cotton fabric, with decorative trim that can be layered to make a more elaborate effect. While they can be worn alone in summer, they can also be worn over top of a parka in order to protect the fur underneath.
Oogilhaqs can be spotted in photos all the way back to my great-great grandma! And these days, all kinds of creative interpretations and modern styles exist. Creators on Instagram like Danielle Rock of @coastal.rock.design, and Nikki Corbett of @sewyupik, make beautiful handmade pieces for purchase.
This is one of the few indigenous garments that I’ve had a personal relationship with growing up, so I knew it was something I wanted to make myself. Not to mention that skin sewing (or sewing with animal fur/skins) is a specific art that I’ve not yet learned and wearing a fur parka might be a bit much in a Californian climate!
My great-great grandma and grandpa
For the pattern, I drew one out based on an oogilhaq I have that belonged to Amouk. Once I drew it all out, I cut out the paper pattern and made myself a mock-up.
Drawing out the paper pattern
Cutting out my mock-up
I wanted to take my time, for it to come out just right. Every step made me more and more excited to see myself in it for the first time.
Positioning the pocket
Setting the sleeves
I had some apprehension initially about the length; mine had always been kuspaqs rather than oogilhaqs when I was young. But when I saw this image of all these women (including Amouk!) in their oogilhaqs from the 1930’s, I knew the length would be alright. I also wanted to add a bit of my own flair to mine, so I added a bit of extra volume at the sleeve head to add a little puff, just for fun.
1930s - Unalakleet women standing in front of the post office wearing oogilhaq over their parkas
Sewing on the trim by hand
Sewing on the trim by hand has felt especially meditative. In these times, I always like to think about how somewhere back in time, so many women in my family went through the same motions, sitting just as I did. It feels so unifying to think about us all cutting out our pieces, pulling the thread through the fabric the same way, poking ourselves with our needle every now and then.
Getting to show Grandma when I was done was really special. I’m so glad I got to share that moment with her and talk about the experience and hear her advice and praise. I really cherish that moment, even though it had to be virtual, given our current circumstances. One day, she’ll get to see my creation in person!
I’m so immensely proud of my work on this garment. When I put it on and look at myself in the mirror, I see my Mom, I see my Grandma, I see my Amouk. My oogilhaq is a hug I never want to let go from. The good news is, I think this is the first one of many.
You can find Crysta on Instagram @crystasews
Crysta, thank you so much for taking us with you on the making of your first oogilhaq! I found it so moving seeing the old pictures of your Mum, Grandma and Amouk, and I'm sure they're all so proud of the beautiful oogilhaq you made! Such a beautiful dress, made even more beautiful by the generational history and tradition that has been passed down the line of women in your family. Maybe one day you will be teaching your daughter or niece to sew one of her very own too!