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Photos: Clara Dirks' exquisite hand-sewn dolls keep a 'dying art' alive in Alaska

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 20, 2015

Clara Dirk's family is originally from Point Hope, a traditional whaling community of 700 on Alaska's North Slope. Like her ancestors before her, sewing for Clara is both a pastime and a necessity. Over the years, she learned how to make clothes, fancy fur parkas, hunting parkas and mukluks to clothe her family. Having the knowledge to sew all of these articles of clothing is a plus for the family whaling crew. Her dad, Luke Koonook Sr., started a whaling crew in 1975, and all whalers need warm and functional clothing. Men need warm fur parkas to help them endure waiting on the sea ice for hours — sometimes days — for the bowhead whales to migrate through. Women on the crew need fancy fur parkas and atigluks (kuspuks) for looking nice for the huge three-day whaling feast called Qagruk, which always happens in June if whales are caught.

But traditional skin sewing is a dying art in Point Hope.

"It's slowly dying," Henry said. "Some of the reason why it's dying is because people not really wanting to learn."

Clara began sewing as a young girl, but took her sewing to a different level when she started making dolls. These 1-foot-tall dolls are exquisite, with clothing that looks exactly like full-size garments, down to the trim on parkas and mukluks.

Over the years, the detail and tiny stitches required wreaked havoc on Clara's hands. On good days, she worked eight to nine hours. When arthritis worsened, she cut the time in half.

"It's better to keep going, to work through the pain," Clara said. "Otherwise it will get worse."

Since she was in her late 20s, Clara has made more than 100 dolls.

READ MORE: Stitch by stitch: Keeping the dying art of skin sewing alive

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