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Sew and Behold

Sew and Behold

Corinne Pilakapsi creates art—and warmth—with her parkas.
By Jessica Davey-Quantick
Apr 10
2019

When former NHL star Jordin Tootoo posted a family photo to his Instagram account, most of the commenters weren’t asking about his hockey career. They wanted to know where his daughter got her parka. Corinne Pilakapsi, Tootoo’s sister in Rankin Inlet, made the bright red coat.

“When he was playing for the Blackhawks, even though it’s too warm for Chicago, he’d let her wear it, and a lot of people kept asking, ‘Where’d you get that? We want that!’ and he’s laughing and is like, “Well it’s from the North!’” says Pilakapsi. 

Handmade parkas are a common sight in Nunavut, but ask around in Rankin Inlet and Pilakapsi’s name comes up frequently. She’s made parkas for hockey teams to give as gifts to visiting players from the south and she’s made custom jackets for the Rankin Inlet fire department. When her brother first joined the NHL, she carefully made her own logos to decorate a celebratory parka in his honour. 

A colourful collection of Pilakapsi's parkas. "You can do anything. You can design it any way you want!" PHOTO BY CODY PUNTER

“My brother was the first Inuk in the NHL, and to this day, not many people know he has a sister,” she says. “I’ve always told him, like, don’t mention me. I’m not the one that wants to be in the limelight.”

With colourful fur and elaborate trims, from rickrack and ribbon to seal skin and lace, Nunavut fashion is getting attention—from Victoria Kakuktinniq of Iqaluit’s Victoria’s Arctic Fashions being featured in fashion magazines, to Shawna Dias, who runs a popular online parka business from her Rankin Inlet home.

“We all sew different. There are ladies that sew fancy jackets. I don’t sew like that. I sew more for warmth. I’m more sporty. I like to do the logos. I’m slowly trying to go fancier and do fancier work. I don’t consider myself an artist, that’s just me. But many other people will say, ‘No, you are one.’ And I’m like, I don’t understand how I can be one, I just sew,” says Pilakapsi.

“Doing this sewing, it gets me away from that worry thinking. It just soothes me and my soul. I miss my grandmother constantly because she always told me when you do something, you do it with your soul, with your mind. I sew with love, with the thought of being warm.”

She learned to sew 30 years ago by watching her mother-in-law. “My mom never sewed. But my husband, his mother, sewed. Sewed the kamiks, sewed the parkas, sewed the wind-pants to keep her boys warm. So it sort of came upon me where I thought well if I’m ever going to be his wife or if I’m going to stay with him forever I need to know how to keep him warm. So I would sit and I would watch her as she sewed.”

Now, she’s passing those skills on to the next generation.

“I taught a couple of courses here. They asked me to come in because it’s easier for the younger generation to talk to me than it is to talk to an elder because an elder is so precise. ‘Nope you’ve got to do it this way, you’ve got to hold it this way,’ and the younger generation feels it’s so hard and intimidating. Like, ‘I don’t want to make her mad. I don’t want to ask her. I’m scared.’ Whereas they can come to me, ‘Corinne, why is this not working?’” she says with a laugh. 

Her parkas are made with three layers of different material, so the final product is as warm as it is stylish. PHOTO BY CODY PUNTER

She makes a lot of her own patterns, modelling them on parkas she’s made in the past and adjusting for each new person. Step one when a customer visits her house is trying on one of the pile of parkas in her hallway—either her own or one she’s made for one of her kids. It’s not just about fit: she’s got a knack for guessing what designs would suit someone best. “Just looking at you I already know. I don’t even need to say anything, it just sort of falls.”

Her parkas are light, thin and form-fitting. But they’re warm enough for Rankin’s -60 C weather. They’re made of three layers: a Hollofil lining in one of three weights (she mostly sticks to 10 ounce, and regularly wears her parkas with just a tank-top underneath, even in -55 C); a Thinsulate liner; and then the outer layer. That’s where she gets to have fun. 

“You can do anything. You can design it any way you want!” she says. Many of the parkas she’s made for herself feature bright trims and colourful furs. She always brings it back to the person who has to wear it, however, for final approval. “A lot of people are like, ‘What do you think?’ and I’m like, no. It’s what you want to wear. I always say, yeah I can try. I’m not going to promise I can do it but I can try. And a lot of the time it works out,” she says. 

Her work looks like it came from the Kivalliq region: for instance, right now she says people in the region are really into curved arms on their parkas, so the fabric doesn’t bulk when the wearer lifts or moves their arms. “It makes me feel like I smile inside,” she says about spotting one of her parkas in public. “They may not know it’s me but they’ll know it’s from the North.”

A custom parka from her will range in price from $500 to $600 and up, depending on the amount of work involved. She also doesn’t provide the fabric or the fur to trim (those can be bought in town; Rankin Inlet’s Home Hardware does a bustling trade in parka trimmings). 

Canada Goose recently announced a line of Inuit-inspired parkas, working in collaboration with designers from nine communities in Nunavut, NWT, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. But if you really want to stay warm? Go to the source directly—one of Nunavut’s seamstresses. Or just follow Jordin Tootoo on Instagram.