The art of sewing fur

The Alaska Native Customary Art Show at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention is a feast for the senses: Shoppers exchange greetings in English and a half-dozen Alaska Native languages, jostling together among tables laden with eye-catching beaded jewelry, intricately woven grass baskets, delicate ivory carvings and other art.

In the middle of the crowded Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center floor, one booth stands out from the rest.

Annette Wilson's table is covered in big, luxurious piles of fur. Pale lynx, bright red fox, dark brown beaver and smooth, speckled sealskin lay heaped together. Several gray wolf pelts are draped around the booth. The animals were all trapped by Wilson and her husband, then tanned and sold as pelts or cut and sewn into hats, mittens, scarves, pillows, purses, belts and more. Wilson herself is a skilled skin sewer—a craft honed by Arctic necessity and passed down through generations.

In Alaska, sewing fur is a connection to family, culture and the land.

Wilson lives, traps and sews in King Salmon, a community on the shore of the Naknek River at the base of the Alaska Peninsula. Situated more than 280 miles southwest of Anchorage, the town is the gateway to Katmai National Park and the transportation hub for the Bristol Bay region, a place rich in natural beauty and resources.

According to the Marine Conservation Alliance, Naknek-King Salmon fisheries are among the most productive in the world. Every summer, the community is flooded with seasonal workers and the waters teem with commercial fishermen. And every fall, after the workers go home and the canneries close, it's time to trap.

Wilson and her family begin setting their traps Thanksgiving weekend, she said. They travel by snowmachine or ATV, through woods and wetlands and miles of wilderness, occasionally spending the weekend in a little cabin they keep for that very purpose.


"It's just so nice," Wilson said. "Even if we're in a tiny community, it's still nice to get out."

The state's Department of Fish and Game issues trapping licenses for regions around the state, allowing Alaskans to harvest everything from coyote to arctic fox to mink. King Salmon sits within the bounds of Region 9.

Wilson, who grew up in the area, has been surrounded by fur since she was a child. Old photos saved in Alaska's Digital Archives show her posing in front of a line of pelts, playing in an oversized fur parka and standing next to a gray wolf that had been caught in one of her father's traps.

These days, she and her husband catch their own wolves. Wilson's family also traps wolverines, otters, fox, lynx and beavers. To transform the plush pelts into handsewn art, Wilson makes careful cuts with sharp blades. River otters boast approximately 373,000 hairs per square inch, while wolverine pelts—weighing around seven ounces per square food—are among the heaviest and most durable, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Using tiny, strong stitches, the seamstress crafts beautiful, sturdy goods designed to protect their wearers from freezing winter temperatures. Over the years, Wilson says she's learned to use every part of the fur. A lynx's legs might be used in infinity scarves and wraps; small scraps become part of boot cuffs or pillows.

Other booths at AFN sell fur moccasins and mittens and hats and ornaments, but none has the variety found at Wilson's table. Her full-size wolf pelts draw admiring gazes from passersby. Customers stop to run their fingers through sumptuous fur scarves or admire the shine on a sealskin belt or bag.

Her business grows by word of mouth. Wilson sells her handicrafts at local events—her community's big Christmas bazaar, and the annual summer festival known as Fishtival. Customers come from around the state; even Canada. This was her first foray into the Alaska Native Customary Art Show.

This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of 61°North. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com.

Kirsten Swann

Kirsten Swann is an Anchorage writer.