When Sarah Cleary is sewing, she still thinks of the advice she received from her mom many decades ago.
“It always reminds me what my mother always said: remember that you pull the sinew tight, so your clothing will last for a long, long time,” she said.
A Deline-born Elder who now lives in Yellowknife, Cleary learned to sew from her mother during a childhood spent almost entirely on the land.
It was a skill with immediate practical benefits.
“It’s very important to have the right clothing for the seasons,” she said. “I grew up on the land, and I was always taught to be prepared, and showed how to make moccasins and repair them and keep warm. I carry that forward with me.
“In the old days, when we’re sewing, it’s got to be quality, because you travel the land a lot. You can’t afford to have your moccasins rip or anything, because it’s cold out there.”
Sewing also helped keep Cleary entertained as a young girl, as she eventually learned how to make dolls from sinew and traditional hides.
“When we were little, we travelled the land and we had no toys,” she recalled. “The Hudson’s Bay [Company] had just the basics. I don’t ever remember buying toys, so we made our own.”
She still sews as much as ever today.
She makes garments by request, handles repairs and alterations for people who need them, and is currently working on a pair of moccasins for a 100-year-old Elder in Norman Wells.
They’re “beautiful,” she said, “with black hide, gold beads, little flowers and a silver Arctic fox.”
“I really put a lot of work into it,” she added.
She also creates beautiful dolls, much like the ones she made out on the land as a girl.
“I can probably do a doll in two or three days, with the beading and everything,” she said. “I made them for my little nieces and for my daughter.”
When she isn’t busy with her own projects, Cleary enjoys teaching the next generation how to sew.
She shares her knowledge “off and on” at Yellowknife’s Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, and derives great satisfaction from seeing young people learn the skill.
They may be spending less time on the land than she did, but she noted that “if modern science ever crashes,” having skills like sewing in their back pocket will help them “survive out on the land.”
“They can carry it on so we don’t lose it — to remember our ancestors and where we come from,” she said. “History is very important.”
Sewing can also be a good source of income for young people, according to Cleary.
“It’s a good hobby that you can carry on and pass it on to the next generation so that they can use it,” she said. “Say they go south or something for further education, they can sew and sell their sewing, and that would supplement their income.”
When asked what advice she would share with the next generation of Indigenous artists and craftspeople in the NWT, Cleary simply encouraged them to nurture the skills they learned from their Elders – just like she did.
“Whatever they learn from their grandparents or their parents, make sure that they carry that on so that they can feel secure and they can feel happy about their future every time they see their products,” she said. “That way they’ll carry on their tradition.
“Even handling a needle is very rewarding.”