Nunavik seamstress embellishes tradition
“We all grew up watching our mothers and grandmothers, so it’s in our DNA"
OTTAWA—In a sea of sealskin and colourful commander fabric, Winifred Nungak’s booth stands out for its pop of pink, from plush pompoms to dyed fox-fur mittens.
The Kangirsuk seamstress has curated a booth at this year’s Northern Lights Business and Cultural Showcase, where her parkas and pualuuk (mittens) are embellished with colourful siniks or trim—a look that’s become something of her trademark.
Nungak’s work, which she sells through her business Winifred Designs, has made a name for itself through the Inuit Nunangat and beyond, but Nungak said she considers herself more of a seamstress than an artist.
“Growing up, I think every Inuk woman sews,” she said. “We grew up watching our mothers and grandmothers, so it’s in our DNA—it’s part of our lives.”
Like many beginner sewers, Nungak started making miniature amauti for her Barbie dolls as a child.
“When I was a teenager, that’s when I started making my own clothes,” said Nungak, who is the daughter of Nunavik writer Zebedee Nungak and Makivik Corp. governor Jeannie Nungak.
“I remember my very first coat, I think I was 16,” she said. “It was very rookie-looking. I had no experience, but it was wearable.”
As she experimented with different styles, Nungak looked at photos of the traditional and handmade clothing Inuit women wore in the 1950s and 60s. She was immediately drawn to the siniks, or trim embellishing the cuffs of parkas—a look that makes many of her pieces stand out.
Nungak was already selling pieces to clients when she decided to learn more about the southern fashion industry. She studied fashion design at LaSalle College in Montreal, earning a diploma in college studies in 2013.
By this point, her style was intact: “fitted, feminine, curvy,” as Nungak described it. “I like colourful, colourful clothing.”
Her work has been seen and sold across the continent and beyond. One of her parkas caught the attention of an American curator in 2016, who selected it to be displayed as part of a travelling exhibition of Indigenous fashion that visited four museums that year.
These days, Nungak is juggling a full-time career as a seamstress, in addition to raising her one-year-old son, Nayen. She sells her work through her business Facebook page and at the occasional trade show, like Northern Lights.
Nunagak said she’s proud to be one of a growing number of Inuit seamstresses who are making a name for themselves and re-defining Inuit fashion.
It’s not always easy though. Nungak would like to see regional organizations offer support for small businesses like hers.
“I work alone,” Nungak said as her toddler clambered up her lap. “I have no seamstresses to sew for me. And living up north, it’s hard to have all these materials.
“I get a lot of messages and requests, so I can’t make parkas for everyone,” she said. “So it’s more like, I can only offer them whatever I have available.”
You can visit Winifred Designs online here.