A new publication from Canada Goose. Your guide to living in the open.

Project Atigi: The Women Behind the Parkas

“Seeing people sewing their own clothing for our weather inspired me.”
Five designers share the craftsmanship, care and passion that goes into every stitch.

by Haley Lewis

14 minute read

Olivia Tagalik

Olivia has been sewing for 15 years. She was taught to sew by her mother and sisters—who she says are still better than her—and currently sews as a side project. Living full-time in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Olivia works as an HR Agent for a local mining company. Several years ago she launched her design company, Inuit Creative Expressions (ICE), and loves making women's parkas because of the opportunity it gives her to be more creative.

Olivia Tagalik (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

In partnership with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Canada Goose has commissioned a select group of designers from all four regions of Inuit Nunangat. Using their traditional skills, designs, and Canada Goose’s materials, these designers have created one-of-a-kind parkas for Project Atigi. This year's rendition consists of 90 parkas made by 18 different designers—and proceeds from the project will go right back into the community.

“Project Atigi allows us to showcase the designer’s resilience, their ability to adapt, and to create such beautiful designs, and we really get to see where their inspiration comes from,” says Gavin Thompson, Canada Goose’s VP of Corporate Citizenship. “We hear these wonderful stories of tradition and heritage, but also see designs that look to the future.”

It’s incredible to watch someone sew the finishing touches onto a parka. The last step for most designers is attaching the fur—and it’s mesmerizing following along as they hand stitch a ruff to the hood, weaving sinew thread tightly in and out.

Finishing a parka is not only a remarkable moment to witness, it’s also the most satisfying moment for the person making it. “My favorite part is sewing on the fur,” says Olivia Tagalik, a designer from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and one of this year’s Project Atigi designers. “It completes the look and a lot of the parkas I make are designed based on the fur.”

In late November 2019, I travelled from Ottawa, Ontario to Iqaluit, Nunavut to meet with five designers, all part of Project Atigi: Alaana Tatty, Olivia Tagalik, Parniga Akeeagok, Lisa-Louie Ittukallak, and Eileena Arragutainaq. The women, while incredibly different in terms of the communities they come from, their sewing styles, and reasons for getting into parka making, still have deep similarities.

One of those similarities? The pace at which each of these women tackle their work, completing custom measurements, designs, embroidery, and stitching with a confidence and fluidity that takes years to perfect. The craftsmanship, care and passion that goes into each of their parkas is breathtaking, and that’s something a lot of the women anticipate will be recognized when this year’s collection debuts.

“I hope that people realize how much work and effort and time goes into any creation; whether it’s a parka, mitts, or a carving,” says Olivia. “The time that the artist puts in is normally undervalued. I want people to understand that this isn’t something that’s mass produced, you’re getting something really unique.”

Eileena Arragutainaq (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

The time that the artist puts in is normally undervalued. I want people to understand that this isn’t something that’s mass produced, you’re getting something really unique.

Olivia Tagalik

Eileena Arragutainaq (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

I met the Project Atigi designers at Qaggiavuut, the Iqaluit home base of a non-profit organization focused on strengthening Inuit and Nunavut performing arts and culture. We sat nestled across from each other in a podcast-style set-up: outside the temperature hovered around -10° C, so we lit the fireplace to stay warm.

While I spoke to each woman on her own, shared personality traits between all five stood out as our conversations progressed. There was a warmth that rippled throughout, making it easy to feel like fast friendships were forming. Much of our conversations were spent deep in laughter—partially brought on by the suggestion that our crew learn some risqué Inuktitut phrases, which quickly descended into a hilarious game of broken telephone.

This juxtaposition of contemporary life with longstanding cultural practices is what fuels the creative fires of each woman—their desire to pass down their culture and traditions to a new generation—and population—was obvious. After all, the skills they’re building stitch by stitch were learned from their own community. Passing it on is a necessary, or natural, depending on how you look at it, step in the process. Many of the designers didn’t choose parka making as a passion project or career: it chose them. You can see their dedication to this calling in every stitch they sew—and the designers hope that their work with Project Atigi will be another step towards bringing knowledge of Inuit culture and traditions to the rest of Canada—and around the world.

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak

Lisa-Louie started parka making in her mid-twenties. She learned how by watching her sisters and studying parkas to see how each stitch was done and trying to mimic it herself. Parka making chose Lisa-Louie when her desire to look stylish in the winter was thwarted by substantial prices at the local northern store. She took it upon herself to learn so she could keep herself and her family warm in the wintertime. Lisa-Louie is very proud of her culture and designs her own outfits when she travels around the world for throat singing performances.

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

For some, parka making is a necessity

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak first learned how to use a sewing machine in her school’s culture class—she started out making shirts and pants. From there she would look at old parkas and study how they were made, how they were stitched, and then try to recreate them herself. She’s proud to be a self-taught parka maker—but it wasn’t something she necessarily wanted to do. In reality, Lisa-Louie started sewing because she hated winter—a season that stretches a lot longer in Puvirnituq, QC, where the weather hovers around 0° C for much of the year.

I used to wear my older sister’s parkas growing up. It was empowering to be able to create my own parkas that I could be proud to wear.

Eileena Arragutainaq

the Pearly Gates, Iqaluit (photographed by: Christopher Anderson)

But at the heart of it, her aversion to winter came from the fact that her family didn’t have a lot of money, so new parkas were often out of the question.

“We couldn’t really afford winter coats and we used to have to buy second-hand, or wear hand-me-downs” says Lisa-Louie, pausing. “I didn't like winter because of that, having to look for a parka, and how [wearing something second-hand] made me look and feel.”

“But when I started to make parkas, I started to love winter and love how I felt, and then people started asking me to make them parkas. Now it not only helps me feel proud—but helps me financially as well.”

And Lisa-Louie isn’t alone in this experience or feeling. Eileena Arragutainaq saw the necessity to sew in her community as well. She’s from Sanikiluaq, a small municipality of just 850 people on the north coast of Flaherty Island in Hudson Bay. The only place for residents to purchase parkas from—besides each other—is the northern store, and oftentimes, that’s not an option.

“It’s really important to sew because all of the things that we have [imported to purchase] are super expensive. We can’t always afford them.” says Eileena. “I used to wear my older sister’s parkas growing up. It was empowering to be able to create my own parkas that I could be proud to wear and be warm enough in.”

Keeping her community warm is also what prompted Parniga Akeeagok to learn how to sew. “As a little girl, seeing people sewing their own clothing for our weather inspired me,” says Parniga, “And I felt that it was a skill I needed to learn because I always knew I wanted a family, and wanted to be able to sew for them, and keep them warm. To clothe your family, it’s so important to be able to do that.”

When I started to make parkas, I started to love winter and love how I felt.

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Lisa-Louie Ittukallak (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Alaana Tatty

Alaana has been sewing for over a decade. Her mother and sister taught her to sew after she was mesmerized for so many years watching them. Alanna is proud to be able to pass on her people’s traditions with parka making and sewing and loves teaching the next generation of parka makers—she even helped start a class at her local friendship centre.

Alaana Tatty (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Passing down culture and traditions

Parka making is as much a part of culture and tradition for Inuit people as matryoshkas are for Russians and plaids are for Scots—and the women who make them acknowledge that importance. Not only has parka making always been, in a sense, a tool for survival, but it has been integral in inspiring the next generation to carry on their culture and traditions for years to come.

Eileena was taught to sew by her mother and sister—and now she’s teaching the next generation of parka makers. She’s the sewing teacher at her local school, Nuiyak Elementary School. “It's very important to keep our tradition alive,” says Eileena. “It’s also a good way to keep our youth out of trouble and having them involved in culture and tradition does that.”

Teaching makes me feel like I’m sharing aspects of my culture, there’s a huge pride in it and it makes me feel connected.

Alaana Tatty

Alaana Tatty (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Everything she’s learned growing up, she passes down to her students. She wants to instill in them the same pride she felt for learning while growing up.

And that’s another thing all the designers have in common: they’re all incredibly grateful for their teachers. Whether they were taught at the local community centre, friendship centre, by friends or family, they’re always quick to acknowledge where they skills came from.

Alaana Tatty was taught by her mother and sister. For the longest time she would just sit there and watch them sew, and to her, it was the fascination that inspired her to learn. “I made my first parka when I was 12-years-old, but it wasn’t for me it was for a doll,” says Alaana, giggling. “It’s something that brings my family and friends together, we can teach each other.”

Alaana used to work at the local friendship centre in Rankin Inlet, Pulaarvik Kablu. There she started a program with a couple of the other employees to teach the youth parka making “We had about 10 people come out every time and they picked it up really quickly, I was so impressed,” says Alaana. “Seeing the kids’ completed parkas and how proud they were of their work, that inspired them to keep making parkas even after the program was finished. Teaching makes me feel like I’m sharing aspects of my culture, there’s a huge pride in it and it makes me feel connected.”

For years Inuit people were shamed from practicing their culture. We’re now in what many are calling an Indigenous renaissance, and, of course, First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples resistance is to thank for that—but so is arts and culture due to its visibility and beauty. What past generations fought for, and what current generations are able to pass down, is important for continuing this renaissance.
 
“Sharing the things I’ve learnt over time from other elders onwards to whoever is interested means a lot,” says Parniga. “To know those skills and be able to pass them on, it’s important we keep sharing our knowledge.”

And that knowledge is not just important to share within culture, but outside as well.

Eileena Arragutainaq

Eileena has been sewing since she was 17-years-old and she was taught by her mother and sister. She was part of Project Atigi last year and wanted to get involved again this year because she saw the reach of the project. Eileena gains inspiration for her parkas from her mother who has a box full of photos of all the parkas she’s made in the past—when Eileena feels lost she rummages through the box.

Eileena Arragutainaq (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Project Atigi, now in its second year, has grown exponentially. The project allows Canada Goose to celebrate the original parka makers unique and incredible designs, while showcasing their expertise and helping to further their craftsmanship.

“We wanted to create opportunities for social entrepreneurship using our global platform and giving back to the community,” says Thompson. “We felt it was important to respect and honour those we've gained inspiration from.”

Bringing knowledge of Inuit culture to the rest of Canada and the world

There’s a huge divide when it comes to Northern parts of Canada and the South; misconceptions, stereotypes and oftentimes total forgetfulness. Many of the women hope showcasing their parkas on such a global platform will help change that. “Having a company like Canada Goose showcase our parkas, culture, tradition, all Inuit-made, to the world is an incredible opportunity,” says Lisa-Louie. “I’m overwhelmed by what can happen.”

Part of sharing that knowledge is hoping people globally will acknowledge where parkas came from, and still come from. While the practice started hundreds of years ago and the materials and methodology have changed, the patterns and purpose haven’t, which just goes to show how adaptive and resilient Inuit culture is. “People used to only use skins (caribou, and seal), we’re still using the same patterns but modern materials,” says Lisa-Louie, “so the tradition is still going on and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”

Tundra Valley, as seen from Apex, Iqaluit (Photographed by: Christopher Anderson)

This project highlights the people, the uniqueness, the culture that we have and where we come from.

Parniga Akeeagok

“The lands, waters and ices of the Inuit people.” The Inuit Nunangat is the homeland of the Inuit in Canada and is made up of four northern Canadian regions: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the Canadian territory of Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut of Newfoundland and Labrador.

There is so much power in what these parkas can do besides keeping the community warm and being a creative outlet for so many incredible designers. Inuit-made parkas showcase the beauty of Inuit culture by bringing something that feels so foreign and far away into people's day to day lives.

“When people wear our coats outside of Inuit Nunangat, people will ask where it’s from, or who made that,” says Lisa-Louie. “And the fact that now someone will be able to tell them exactly who made that coat and where they are from really helps share our culture.”

One of the benefits of this project is that it provides the designers an opportunity to bridge the North-South knowledge divide by educating consumers about their culture. With their parkas being sold around the world, Project Atigi is introducing a new audience to Inuit culture. But what’s most important is that this work is being done properly. Instead of appropriating it, the work is done with input from community, using local artists. If you ask any of the designers, this is what makes Project Atigi special.

“This project highlights the people, the uniqueness, the culture that we have and where we come from,” says Parniga. “You often don’t see companies creating these initiatives that work with our Inuit organizations to help our people from the ground up, and that’s amazing.”

“It’s not like somebody from the South saying, ‘Oh I’ve been there, I know all about it,’” adds Olivia. “It’s actually people who live here, who work here, who know what it's all about and I think that’s the best way to do it.”

Parniga Akeeagok (Photographed by Joey L)

No two parkas are exactly alike

One of the many things that makes Inuit parka making unique is the fact that most of the women never design the same coat twice. There’s always something different in the design if not building out a different parka entirely—which is why making a size run for this year’s Project Atigi was a bit tricky creatively.

“I’m always happy to get orders, but for me it’s really important to prioritize, and be selective,” says Olivia. “If I get 10 requests for the exact same thing, that’s not something I want to do. I need to keep that creative element!”

And that’s exactly what each designer has done with Project Atigi—they’ve made it their own. While they have stuck to similar coats in the size run, they’ve incorporated unique elements in each piece, and where they get their inspiration from is just as interesting.

Eileena gets hers from her mother: “When we were growing up, she used to make our parkas, and she would take photos of each one. She has this box full of photos of all the parkas she’s made, so when I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll look through her box of photos and pick out the parts I love.”

Clearly history is a big inspiration for these women: it keeps their work grounded in tradition and allows inspiration to come from all around. Lisa-Louie gets hers from different regions across the North, in Canada and outside. She loves being able to pull from different patterns and colours but always makes sure she keeps her designs traditional. As for Alaana, her designs often just pop into her head. She’s inspired by her surroundings, people and experiences, and she always makes sure her coats have colourful elements that she considers being a true expression of self.

And for the person who ends up wearing an Inuit-made parka? They’re guaranteed to be wrapped up in a garment that’s not only unique—it’s made with the heart and soul of the designer.

Parka designed and created by Lisa-Louie ITTUKALLAK
(Photographed by Natasha V)

Parniga Akeeagok

Parniga has been sewing for years. She was taught by community elders. As a little girl, seeing people sewing their own clothing for the cold weather inspired her. Working for the government of Nunavut, and being a full-time mother, Parniga finds time to sew on evenings and weekends (or on planes and boats), oftentimes with her daughter who she bought her first sewing machine for when she was four-years-old.

Parniga Akeeagok (PHOTOGRAPHed by Joey L)

Being part of something bigger

The designers agree that initiatives like Project Atigi need to become commonplace. It gives them access to a marketplace they need to grow their business, and certain levels of support they wouldn’t otherwise have. A lot of the women work full-time, with kids at home, and have to make time for parka making on evenings and weekends. For some, the idea of parka making full-time is a lofty goal—but the level of exposure granted through Project Atigi makes that more attainable.

In fact, it was seeing the reach Project Atigi had last year that prompted some of the designers to get involved this year. The hope is that as the program continues to grow, it’ll start to reach and influence new sewers.

“I hope this project can inspire the younger generation, like last year’s Project Atigi inspired me,” says Lisa-Louie. “I hope it inspires them to learn more about their culture, and to get involved in such an incredible practice like parka making.”

And while inspiring the next generation of parka makers is important, Project Atigi has also fulfilled the wish of many women: being a part of something they could only dream of.

“To me, this is really special because I never had a Canada Goose coat. I always wanted one,” says Lisa-Louie. “But now I’m making one, I’m making a size run, with a Canada Goose logo on it, so I guess in some way, I’m finally getting my Canada Goose!”

In partnership with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Canada Goose has commissioned a select group of designers from all four regions of Inuit Nunangat. Using their traditional skills, designs, and Canada Goose’s materials, these designers have created one-of-a-kind parkas for Project Atigi. This year's rendition consists of 90 parkas made by 18 different designers—and proceeds from the project will go right back into the community.

“Project Atigi allows us to showcase the designer’s resilience, their ability to adapt, and to create such beautiful designs, and we really get to see where their inspiration comes from,” says Gavin Thompson, Canada Goose’s VP of Corporate Citizenship. “We hear these wonderful stories of tradition and heritage, but also see designs that look to the future.”

Project Atigi, now in its second year, has grown exponentially. The project allows Canada Goose to celebrate the original parka makers unique and incredible designs, while showcasing their expertise and helping to further their craftsmanship.

“We wanted to create opportunities for social entrepreneurship using our global platform and giving back to the community,” says Thompson. “We felt it was important to respect and honour those we've gained inspiration from.”

“The lands, waters and ices of the Inuit people.” The Inuit Nunangat is the homeland of the Inuit in Canada and is made up of four northern Canadian regions: the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, the Canadian territory of Nunavut, Nunavik in Northern Quebec and Nunatsiavut of Newfoundland and Labrador.