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Published: 27 March 2021

By Andy Ross

Discovering Textiles - Canadian Inuit tapestry

The enforced transition from a nomadic culture to a more permanent, fixed way of life has often been problematic for people around the world. 

In 1969, what was then the largest hand-weaving company in Canada, Karen Bulow Ltd, was invited to consult on a proposed new industry in the Arctic. The idea behind the proposal was to provide employment for women in Pangnirtung, a small village on Baffin Island, through weaving. Weaving was not something familar to the villagers but sewing was a traditional handskill passed down from generation to generation, one that was necessary to master in order to live in the Arctic where the slightest mistake in a garment or covering could lead to disaster. 

The initial weaving of scarves, sashes and blankets and braids soon was superseded by the making of tapestries. The first tapestries were geometric patterned and boldly coloured but it was when the decision was made to purchase drawings from the community to be translated into woven pictures that the studio practice really took off. One person drew and another, or in some cases, several others, wove the pieces as a one-off or an edition of ten or twenty. This technique of working together was effective - in previous generations, when the men were away hunting, women would gather to work and chat, just as happened in the making of a tapestry. 

Encouraging drawing was a natural extension of storytelling. By creating pictures, ways of life could be explained visually, and this, when brought together with the handskills of the weavers, enabled the making of works of art. As tapestry was not a local craft but was brought in from Europe, the community made it their own. Each of the tapestries is as neat on the back as the front, a messy back being offensive to the sense of craftsmanship and care that had been instilled in the first of the weavers by previous generations. 

A new book about the tapestry studio, one of the very few in the world that produces contemporary art as tapestries, has been added to the studio library: Nuvisavik - the place where we weave. Many of the tapestries made by the studio can be seen on this website from the Uqqurmiut Centre and on Pinterest. In 2010 the studio produced a piece for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

(Image on this page courtesy of Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio

THE HUNTER'S PATH IN THE CYCLE (1992)

Andrew Qappik / Leesee Kakee)