Ripping fabric can sound like music.
In Toksook Bay, a small village on the Bering Sea, Bethany Fernstrom learned the traditional ripping techniques to make her first kuspuk. Sitting on the warm living room floor of a resident's home, she learned to measure fabric panels against her body, rip the correct sizing, and then sew them into the Alaska Native garment. Ripping sounds filled the small house, joining the murmur of voices and the hum of sewing machines to create an arctic symphony.
Generally characterized by the large front pocket and hood, kuspuks (Yup'ik spelling is qaspeq, pronounced kus-puk) are worn by women, men and children, and they dance across the realms of practical and decorative. They are worn for everything from berry picking to hunting, dancing to drumming, daily life to special occasions.
Since first learning kuspuk-making in 2011, Fernstrom has ripped and sewn several thousand kuspuks and taught hundreds of Alaskans to sew their own. With her new project, Kuspuks for All, she aims to collect traditional knowledge and celebrate Native culture one kuspuk at a time.
The original hoodie
In the mid-to-late 1800s, whaling ships traveled along the Alaska coastline and traded goods with Natives. Whalers brought flour and sugar in large cotton sacks. To utilize the extra sacks, Native women began sewing tops for themselves and their families.
The kuspuk designs were inspired by the fur-and-intestine parkas worn during harsh winter months, but the cotton cloth provided a comfortable, lightweight garment to wear in warmer weather. Fernstrom likes to refer to the kuspuk as "the original hoodie." There are endless stylistic differences in design, with variations of the pocket, hood, body length, sleeve cut and trimming.
"Often, these patterns are handed down from grandmother to daughter to granddaughter, and a family will have their own pattern," said Aaron Leggett, curator of Alaska history and culture at the Anchorage Museum. "Sometimes whole villages will have a style. At the same time, there is a lot of individual creativity that goes into it."
Now, Leggett said, the kuspuks have become ubiquitous in Alaska, with even the state Legislature practicing Kuspuk Fridays in Juneau.
Five years ago, Fernstrom had just begun teaching fourth grade in Toksook Bay when she saw her first kuspuk. A fellow teacher invited her over and showed her how to rip and sew her own.
Fernstrom remembers walking through the snow with her sewing machine, finally reaching a small house on the end of the wind-swept tundra. Passing the sealskin in the arctic entry and knocking on the main door, she heard hollers to come on in and was greeted by three generations of smiling faces.
"As soon as I put on my first kuspuk, I knew I wanted to make another," Fernstrom said.
For the next few years, she sewed informally, making kuspuks and giving them away. She was invited to take part in large Toksook Bay celebrations — potlatches — where extended families wore matching kuspuks. Several times, Fernstrom joined the gathering of women to sew the tops, and the sense of camaraderie stuck with her.
"Women sewing together — there's something really special about that," Fernstrom said. "The experience of making these garments was more than an idle chore; it was a bonding experience that they shared together."
Fernstrom moved to Fairbanks in 2012 and continued to sew and sell kuspuks at the local farmers market, but she missed village life.
Meanwhile, in Wales, a remote village jutting into the Bering Strait, a school principal was on a hunt. Roxie Quick of the Wales School had just received a grant for sewing machines and fabrics, which she was hoping to utilize in the school and community, ideally relating to kuspuks. She was looking for someone to spearhead the project.
Enter Bethany Fernstrom, a teacher and passionate seamstress with kuspuk experience. Hired to teach first and second grade, she taught sewing to the whole school in small group sessions. Before long, all 38 students in the school had their own kuspuks.
Quick recalls going into the classrooms to watch sewing circles.
"They would talk to each other, laughing, sewing," she said. "At the end of all that, you see them wearing their garment to school and they're glowing. There's such a sense of achievement."
Fernstrom started an informal sewing group on the weekends for community members. When she realized that many of the women didn't own their own kuspuks or know how to make them, she started teaching the traditional techniques she had learned in Toksook Bay.
"The community quickly buzzed," Quick said. "They were happy, they were sewing. Watching the resurrection of cultural sewing and camaraderie in the circles was so heartwarming."
The 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic hit Wales particularly hard, killing more than half the population and orphaning dozens of children.
"Even now, many community elders have only faint memories of how their mothers and grandmothers made their kuspuks," Fernstrom said.
Fernstrom saw how teaching kuspuk-making could be a way of building community and reviving cultural knowledge.
"What really makes the process of sharing this knowledge so special is that thread of connection, from person to person, mother to daughter, friend to friend, which weaves each new artist into a much larger tapestry," she said.
Kuspuks for all
On a recent bright, cold Saturday in Anchorage, I showed up at my friend Elizabeth's house for a kuspuk class. A circle of 10 women sat on the living room floor, fabrics splayed before us as Fernstrom explained the history and background behind the garment. She currently lives in Unalakleet but travels to teach one or two kuspuk classes a month.
[More about the group Kuspuks For All]
Then the ripping began. Using our own bodies for measurement, we cut small notches in the fabric, then ripped them the rest of the way apart — allowing the cloth to rip along the weaving's naturally straight lines.
Our host, Elizabeth Knapp, had attended a kuspuk party several months earlier and enjoyed it so much she decided to host her own.
"It's a community thing," Knapp said. "I get inspired by seeing everyone else's fabric and it's fun to get to know the other people in the group. Through the pocket design and fabric choices, you can tell a lot about the kuspuk-maker. Decisions can say a lot about a person's personality."
Each attendee brings fabric, a sewing machine and scissors. The host provides tables, floor space and ironing stations.
"Hours can fly by in what seems like minutes," Fernstrom explained. "You forget the world beyond the humming of the machines and the company you keep."
It was true. Fernstrom explained what to do, and we formed work clusters throughout the house.
We chatted, sometimes falling silent with concentration or exclaiming as we finished sections.
"I love teaching kuspuk classes," Fernstrom said. "It provides an opportunity to pass on the traditional way of ripping and sewing this beautiful and unique garment, and also impart the importance of the history behind its creation and the methods used to produce it."
She loves the moment someone tries on the kuspuk for the first time, and I understand why. As I slipped my purple and teal kuspuk over my head, there was a moment of hesitation, and then I looked in the mirror and grinned. It felt perfect.
An Alaska cultural fabric
Fernstrom has taught classes across Alaska: in schools, community centers and private homes. She has a broader vision for spreading kuspuk awareness: her project, Kuspuks for All, is a celebration of Alaska cultures and traditional knowledge, starting with a book inspired by dozens of conversations with kuspuk-makers from diverse villages.
It will not be a how-to guide.
"It's a very 'white-culture' thing to be inclined to teach things through writing, wanting to make it searchable on the internet, make a YouTube how-to video," Fernstrom said.
Rather, the book will include stories of the kuspuk-making experience as well as an index of photos of styles from different regions. It will serve as a medium to preserve the art of kuspuk-making and share it with future generations. Fernstrom hopes the book will inspire schools across the state use kuspuks to engage students in Alaska history and cultures.
Afterward, Fernstrom intends Kuspuks for All to evolve into a nonprofit to support Alaska Native youth in completing a college education. The support will take the form of housing, part-time employment, access to free transportation and community meetings. Instead of financial support it will help foster an environment for students to learn life skills to be successful away from their communities.
Fernstrom is not Alaska Native, but her Toksook Bay teachers were, and she has lived in small Alaska villages over the past five years.
"The majority of Alaska Natives that I have come across throughout the state and shared my mission with are very supportive and grateful that the knowledge from their culture is being shared," Fernstrom said.
The only questioning Fernstrom has encountered came from a handful of non-Native people and, initially, herself.
"I knew I loved kuspuks from the day I started making them, but it took me five years to start doing something (about) it because of the hesitation of whether I should, because of the tradition not being my own," Fernstrom said.
After long conversations, travel and self-reflection, Fernstrom realized there would be naysayers no matter what, but this work was important and she felt drawn to it; her race didn't make the mission any less important or meaningful.
Fernstorm acknowledges that she is just one person, but she is on a quest — and it starts with the sound of ripping cloth, a reminder of kuspuks past and present.
"It is my hope that some day all Native and non-Native people in Alaska can join together to celebrate this state's rich history and culture — and if that happens to be one kuspuk at a time, I am up for the challenge."
Elissa Brown is an Anchorage-based freelance writer.