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Discovering the craftwork of sealskin

There is more to sewing than stitches, especially when the thread weaves through a long-standing controversy.

Vera Larsen works at the sewing machine she uses for sealskin.

Vera Larsen works at the sewing machine she uses for sealskin. (Jennifer Kingsley)

Sisimiut Greenland – When I arrive at the sewing and knitting studio, designer Soriina Davidsen is moving a mitten pattern across a piece of sealskin, trying to decide where to cut. If she’s strategic, she should get two pairs of large mittens from a skin that cost 500 Danish kroner (about $75).

Davidsen and her coworker, Vera Larsen, spend long days here cutting, stitching and talking. The pair have formed a friendship – and a business – over sealskin, a material central to Greenlandic culture that has divided others around the world.

Their workshop sits at the back of a store called Qiviut that sells sealskin and muskox wool products. Skins, zippers and tools hang on the workshop walls under fluorescent light, along with a few calendar pages of shirtless men. “Love is a Wonderful Thing” by Michael Bolton plays on the radio. I find a spare piece of sealskin, run my hand over the fur, and enjoy its prickly velvet feel.

Larsen (foreground) and Davidsen at work in their studio behind the Qiviut shop.

Larsen (foreground) and Davidsen at work in their studio behind the Qiviut shop. (Jennifer Kingsley)

“To make beautiful products, you have to be interested in what you do,” Davidsen says. “It’s hard work. You have to be fit, physically. You sew with your body, and your back hurts a lot of times.” Despite this, she is always excited to start the next project; the variety in the skins means that no two items can ever be the same.

Davidsen learned how to prepare skins using traditional methods of scraping, stretching and washing, and she made traditional Greenlandic clothing before creating her own designs based in this shop. Then the shop owner hired Larsen, and Larsen learned from Davidsen. These young women work together to make smaller items, like mittens and slippers, that appeal to tourists, and larger designs including vests and anoraks that are popular with locals.

Designer Soriina Davidsen at work.

Designer Soriina Davidsen at work. (Jennifer Kingsley)

Our conversation wanders from life in Sisimiut to the women’s respect for seal hunters (“I tried for two years to catch one, and I didn’t succeed!” says Davidsen). We laugh about Davidsen’s dependence on Monster energy drinks – she has a can on her workstation at all times – and how these women sew for work, yet knit for fun. But it doesn’t take long to shift towards the issues that shadow every stitch they make.

“Many people don’t listen to why we hunt for sealskin,” says Davidsen. “They just think we club the baby seals and everything. I hope they understand why we do it … we do it so we can live.”

“And we use all of the seal, not just the skin,” Larsen says. “We don’t hunt it for the skin, it’s a byproduct for us. The meat is so good; we cannot live without it.”

Davidsen and Larsen hadn’t been born when French actress Brigitte Bardot was making headlines with her anti-fur activism in the 1970s and ’80s, but they know her name and the role she played in turning international opinion against seal hunting. Greenpeace also launched a powerful campaign against seal hunting at around the same time.

But Greenpeace now recognizes that its campaigns devastated many Arctic Indigenous communities. The environmental NGO adjusted its position on the seal hunt earlier this year, making headlines. “Greenpeace is completely against the commercial hunting of seals for profit. We always will be,” Jon Burgwald, an Arctic campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic, wrote in a blog post in January 2016. “But when Greenpeace and others campaigned against the seal hunt in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn’t adequately distinguish between the inhumane and cruel industrial hunt and the traditional one.”

The workshop walls behind Sisimiut’s Qiviut store are layered with materials, zippers and a calendar.

The workshop walls behind Sisimiut’s Qiviut store are layered with materials, zippers and a calendar. (Jennifer Kingsley)

Davidsen’s skins come from Great Greenland, a tannery that buys sealskins from hunters and tans them. Great Greenland makes sealskin products in-house and sells skins to craftspeople. According to some, the enterprise supports tradition and a subsistence economy, but others argue that a tannery processing furs destined for fashion and furniture is an industrial enterprise.

In the workshop, sealskin is not a policy or a debate, it’s a daily practice. The two women have become like sisters through this work. They share a deep love of the seal and all that it represents about their home and culture. Through them, I can take a break from the controversy and discover the craft.

Davidsen in a handmade muskox wool shawl next to one of her sealskin vests.

Davidsen in a handmade muskox wool shawl next to one of her sealskin vests. (Jennifer Kingsley)

Despite that, politics are never far away. Davidsen explains that many people – including the Danish who have a close connection to Greenland – don’t understand the cultural importance of their work. As for tourists, many don’t realize that although sealskin cannot be brought back to the U.S., its import is permitted in Europe.

“We are dependent on tourists in the summertime,” says Davidsen. “It’s sometimes frustrating when they ask for magnets and T-shirts. They don’t realize that it’s not made here; it’s made in China. Why didn’t they go to China to buy them?”

As the day goes on, a few tourists pop their heads into the workshop and see the items being made by hand. Davidsen and Larsen keep sewing, and I realize how important those stitches are. They tie the people to the land, no matter what the rest of the world says about them. These women have told me how hard the work is on their bodies, and no wonder. Their stitches hold a lot of weight.


This article was first published at Arctic Deeply on July 7, 2016

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