Winter’s Worth of Tiny Stitches into Lifetime of Warmth
Profile by Erica Watson
With a crafter’s eye and mind, Merna Wharton searches for beauty and potential of found objects and Yup’ik traditions. Small things that catch her attention — a curled sheet of birch bark, cut metal scraps of chain link fence — offer insight into her approach to larger projects, like sewing a Yup’ik-style ground squirrel fur parka. Everything can be broken down into details. And the details matter.
Wharton is a collector and harvester, an innovator and a student of tradition. Whether she is sewing furs or fabrics or carving wood or doing any other craft, she wants to understand the entire process, not just the result. She grew up in Akiachak on the Kuskokwim River and learned to sew fur as a young teenager by watching her mother. She continues to hone her skills. She laughs telling the story of her dog gnawing on her in-progress sealskin mukluk bottoms. She had to start over, but came to understand the setback as a learning opportunity. Like the Athabascan story of a woodcarver whose grandfather threw the flawed efforts into the fire, only to pull them out later and demonstrate the artist’s improvement, she says, “If I have to redo them, I’m learning more.” There’s value in repetition.
When she took on the squirrel parka project, her mother helped with the harvest and processing of the furs, but when it came time to start sewing, she told Wharton, “You have to do it.”
And she did it. Wharton was committed to learning every stage of the process, starting with trapping the Arctic ground squirrels. Though she bought most of the furs, she learned from friends who showed her how to set traps on the Denali Highway. “It was unbelievable, like a dream,” she says, reflecting on the stress of learning to safely set the trap, and then finding a still-living squirrel caught in the snare. She experienced the power of delving fully into her process. “I was so nervous, but my daughter was there so I had to remain calm,” she says of learning to kill the squirrels in the quickest, most humane way possible.
Yup’ik parkas like this are sewn in the style of the preceding generations’ work, so Wharton modeled hers after her mother’s, who had replicated the style of those before her. Each artists’ strengths, challenges and materials lead to variations in the final product. Details in the pattern — placement and color of beads or fur tassels, a thumbprint-sized patch of dyed black skin — offer insights into the parka’s lineage to those who know the stories and affiliations they represent. Wharton examined parkas displayed in the University of Alaska Fairbanks museum and the cultural center in Bethel, recognizing elements of her own lineage. “I was just amazed, because they’re all related,” she said.
Speaking of the women in her ancestry, she said, “Whatever’s available, that’s what they used,” which is also true of her own process. For example, thin strips of wolverine fur adorning the front of the parka were traditionally dyed with ochre, so the backside showed a warm red-orange contrast to the dark fur. During the months she spent working on the parka, Wharton drank a lot of Thai tea, and noticed that it had the same hue as the ochre-dyed strips on her mother’s parka. So rather than ochre, she soaked the furs in tea. The difference is invisible to an untrained eye, but knowing these details adds to the richness of the parka’s story, embodying elements of the life of its maker and all those who came before and after her.
She showed the parka at the Festival of Native Arts in Fairbanks with a message of encouragement to others who were intimidated by the scope of such a project, and to pass the tradition on as an accessible, attainable skill. “If you know how to sew, you can do it,” she says. She notes that for many, starting is the scariest part, but once you’ve started any additional work is progress. It’s a solid lesson for any creative endeavor: just get started.
“The squirrel parka was the most advanced thing I’ve done,” Wharton reflects. “It’s the most important thing a [Yup’ik] woman can do.”
The final product is a meticulously measured quilt of more than 50 squirrel skins, tanned and cut into soft squares, the speckled furs shimmering in the light. It’s a winter’s worth of tiny, even hand-sewn stitches. It’s a lifetime of warmth. It embodies a series of choices, of when to study and replicate the practices of your ancestors and when to diverge. It’s a map of Alaska, drawing paths to the places the furs were collected: squirrel, caribou, wolverine. It carries the skills and knowledge of past generations of women and hopes for those yet to come.