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Queen of the qiviut

John Curran
Northern News Services
Published Monday, August 20, 2007

SACHS HARBOUR - On the surface, Sachs Harbour appears to be the same as many small NWT communities - its friendly people live in a beautiful setting and enjoy a strong connection to the land.

But just a short walk around town reveals there is one big difference.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Lena Wolki, 66, is the only professional crafter in Sachs Harbour. She spins qiviut, the soft underwool of the muskox, into yarn which she then knits into luxurious clothing items such as this pair of gloves she's holding. - John Curran/NNSL photo

"We're not a very artistic community," said long-time resident Roger Kuptana. "We don't have any carvers here nowadays at all."

In fact, among the 122 residents of this Banks Island hamlet, the only name anyone associates with arts and crafts is Lena Wolki.

Having lost her dad at the age of three, she grew up with her mother and sister, Mable.

"It was just the three of us taking care of each other," she said. "We moved to Sachs Harbour from Victoria Island in 1955 because the hunting was so much better here."

Growing up living a very traditional lifestyle, Wolki said nothing ever went to waste - especially not the hides of the muskox they harvested.

Today she is known for making some of the most luxurious clothing items available anywhere in the North. Her qiviut gloves and mittens sell for several hundred dollars a pair in major centres such as Yellowknife and points beyond.

"I've been knitting all my life," she said.

Of course knitting is only part of the process. It actually starts at the spinning wheel.

"I get hides from the hunters and then I'll spin for a couple of days straight," said the 66-year-old master artisan.

Once she's got enough yarn to keep her going for a while, out come the needles.

"I can knit a pair of gloves by hand in a day," she said, adding she also does scarves, sweaters and other items.

She's so talented, twice now she's been hired to go to Cambridge Bay in Nunavut to teach workshops on spinning and knitting qiviut.

"It was fun doing that," she said. "You get to meet new people and see old friends when you travel."

When visitors come to the community, they're hard pressed to resist her creations.

"I sold three pairs of gloves in 10 minutes," she said, after meeting up with a tour group of 11 people at the community hall. "They bought everything I had."

Wolki recently moved back to Sachs, having relocated to Inuvik for a few months.

"I missed the community too much and had to come home," she said.

But even on Banks Island, she's noticed things aren't the same as they used to be - the temperature is higher than it ever was before.

"It's been so hot this summer, we had a lot more bugs than usual," she said. "It's better for the mitten business when it's cooler outside."