Cathy Towtongie’s mother-in-law, Nakashuk Towtongie, used to always sew for her, making sure she and her young family stayed warm at all times.
So when she passed away some 30-odd years ago, Cathy was at a loss.
“All of a sudden, I was faced with a growing family,” said Towtongie. “I would always get kamiks from her, and my husband and my children traditional outfits, and I did not know how to sew.”
She missed the warmth of her mother-in-law’s traditional sewing, so she took up the craft herself to replace that new hole in her life.
Fortunately, her biological mother-in-law, Louisa Kaludjak, and Kaludjak’s younger sister Marie Nattar stepped in to train Towtongie.
They taught her how to use her hand, knuckles, fists and forearms for measurements.
“Things you don’t forget,” said Towtongie, who still measures by hand and custom fits any clothing she makes to the person because of that.
She learned how to make caribou outfits with the proper rules, of which there are many when it comes to the skin.
“When you start to cut the skin, you have to be 100-per-cent perfect,” said Towtongie. “You can’t just cut any old way. I used to cry when I would sew something and they would undo the whole thing, take all the threads off, start again.”
Even a tiny hole would mean she had to start over, because it meant the wind could get in, and more than any fashion or art, traditional clothing had to be of the highest survival quality.
The pair of Kaludjak and Nattar also taught Towtongie about the white stomach of the caribou, used for designs to show how rich a man is – not in terms of money, but in his ability to provide for his family and others.
For kamiks, the teachings were equally specific, and anything done wrong was undone.
“They would tell me you have to take all the thread out,” she said. “That was the way of teaching, for their specific type of sewing. Today, we sew like we’re running out of time.”
Before her passing, Nakashuk used to advise Towtongie to disconnect if she was sewing something important, to go to the cabin and not let any cell phone or person distract her.
Towtongie is humble. She doesn’t think she is the best, and she looks up to several seamstresses in the Kivalliq. Two women Towtongie also credits with helping pass on these skills over the years were Amagoalik Nutaraluuk and Monica Sateana.
“I’m still learning today,” she said. “Every skin is different.”
Many people ask her for patterns, but she doesn’t tend to share them, because she uses her hand measurements specific to the person she is sewing for.
She spends much of her time sewing for family, but she rarely sells anything – only if she needs some upgraded sewing gear, and she admits that a high-quality German-made sewing machine is one of her weaknesses.
Now she’s continuing to pass on the tradition to her daughter.
“I don’t like young girls saying, ‘Make this for me,’” said Towtongie. “I told her, ‘Don’t beg. Don’t ask other people to do it for you.’ That’s not the way our people were. They were dependent on themselves. I said to my daughter, ‘Look at this, look at how I’m doing this, look at how I’m stitching, look at the thread I’m using, look at the cut.’”
She will forever remember her mother-in-law and how spoiled she was to know her.
“She truly loved her adopted son, and really loved me,” she said.