My mind was racing as I settled into a stackable chair and set my bag on a foldable table. The room next to an ice rink had been set up only moments earlier and soon would be filled with fur sewers. We were there for a five-week class. This was my last lesson, and my project wasn't complete.
Our instructor had been distracted by the upcoming Fur Rondy and was busy making final alterations on a bear and wolf jacket. The wolf parts were patched together seamlessly from many pieces. Inside it looked like an abstract quilt; outside it was a mighty wolf with black-bear arms and glass eyes peering over her head.
She put it on, and the class marveled at the work that went into it. Where else but Alaska, I wondered, do you find a sewing instructor wearing a local wolf and a black bear salvaged from a dumpster — and who hunts birds with a poodle that loves to lounge in the fur scrap pile?
One of the women who helped teach came in late after taking care of her chickens. Over the past month, I'd learned she also had horses and mules. They were logging mules, she told me, but they were also helpful when hitched to a plow to clear the driveway of snow — a sight I hope to one day see.
Some of the students trapped their own fur, but most of us had purchased it. We learned to repair and stretch the hides to get the most "fabric" out of them. We traced patterns and practiced stitching on scraps.
In earlier classes, our instructor brought items she had made to inspire us — a wooly musk ox hat and a goat hat with a faux hawk. Now, it seemed that everyone was an accomplished fur sewer with a finished product on the last day of class — coyote trapper's hats, beaver mittens, otter slippers.
They must be sewing at home, I thought. I hadn't done my homework. My sewing only occurred in the three hours of each week's class. It was just there that I could set work and life aside to focus on something I'd never done before. I'd never so much as sewn a button.
The teacher's assistant leaned over to look at my project. "I just love your stitches," she said. It surprised me. For weeks, I'd sat in my corner of the room and stitched without conversing or visiting as much as everyone else.
My head stayed down, and each stitch felt like an attempt at perfection that never quite hit the mark. I laid out my waxed thread across the fur and pushed the needle through only to find the needle emerged unpredictably on the other side.
I had wanted my own pair of beaver mittens and to learn a new skill, but it surprised me on that last night how much I'd come to look forward to the class as a kind of therapy. And, only at hearing a compliment on my newfound skill did I realize how much I'd miss it, how much I actually liked to sew. Maybe the fact that I'd hoarded a lifetime supply of thread samples that come with quality shirts meant that deep down I had sewing ambitions and a hidden talent?
As someone who loves the outdoors, I had assumed that only there could I find an escape and solace from the business of ordinary life — work and home. Only long stretches outside had cleared my mind of the mental noise of thoughts, lists and daily concerns.
But somehow, stitching had the same effect as a long walk. Instead of way-making — meandering and letting thoughts unwind along a line leading to a destination — stitching connected piece to piece like tracks connected place to place.
The beaver fur I had purchased was an inexpensive, salvaged hide. It had been trapped locally and was part of a breakup between the trapper and his girlfriend. She had sold his furs to a third party. There were thin parts and evidence of careless fleshing.
I repaired the tears with diamond cuts and glue, then flattened them with a spoon. "Fur is very forgiving," the instructor said, and she was right. You could not tell from the fur side that there had ever been so many holes and patches.
She showed me how to brush the fur, and I examined it as she explained how the guard hairs had likely been broken off by ice being torn away. When she trapped, she was careful to allow the ice to melt so the guard hairs were preserved.
In the last hour of class, I finished the fur part of my project and put my hands inside the rough, unlined mittens. I marveled at the beauty of the fur. Despite its imperfection, it was the most beautiful fur I'd ever seen. Maybe this was because I'd been admiring it up close for so long.
At the base of each hair, the downy fur resembled the gradient pattern of quail feathers in an exotic ripple of gray changing to brown. The longer hair was silky and reflected deep mahogany and copper hues.
I sat there admiring my mittens, and I felt as inspired as I have felt on top of a mountain when enjoying the view after so much work to get there. I felt compelled to express the wonder of it and my surprise at never having expected sewing to reveal so much of the wild Alaska life we all share. There are no factory-made gloves that equal this warmth or the underlying value of the life and story that went into them.
Fur sewing, I learned, is not what you would expect. It's a way to slip out of the modern world and encounter the old ways anew.
Christine Cunningham of Kenai is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter. On alternate weeks, she writes about Alaska hunting and fishing. Contact her at email@example.com.