Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

She brings warmth of north to south

Makes Inuit clothing in her home

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Moving from Nunavut to Winnipeg has meant big changes for Annie Bowkett, 54, who runs a small company making super warm, traditional Inuit clothing.

For one thing, she can't get used to "southern food," as she puts it. So she has caribou, beluga whale meat and Arctic char shipped from home. Some of it she boils but most of it she and husband, Roy, eat raw.

Neither can Bowkett get used to "men's knives," as she calls our common utensil. Instead, she uses a traditional ulu -- it's a short, crescent-shaped blade with a hand grip on it like on a corkscrew. It's for scraping sealskins, cutting hides -- and cutting dinner.

And she misses sleeping in cooler air. She will sometimes sleep in her backyard workshop in winter, heated with just a traditional seal oil lamp (kudlik).

Bowkett feels most at home making her handmade sealskin moccasins (kamiks), mitts and parkas.

"It's fabulous," said Winnipegger Jennifer Schindle, of her new parka Bowkett made. "It's just beautiful. I get a comment on it every day."

"I make people warm," said Bowkett, whose Inuit Custom Clothing is a home-based, word-of-mouth business. The clothes she makes are beautifully hand-embroidered with Inuit art.

In fact, Bowkett once shot a polar bear on Ellesmere Island and made it into polar bear pants (and ate the meat).

"They're the warmest pants in the world and they cool off in summer, so you can wear them year-round," she said.

Bowkett is from Pangnirtung (called "Pang," for short), a community of 1,300 people on Baffin Island in Nunavut. There she ran a business called The Miqqut (Needle Work) Store. She had five employees.

She met her husband, Winnipegger Roy Bowkett, a former public school teacher and Anglican minister, in 1991. Roy was undergoing a life change and had begun teaching Inuit students to become Anglican ministers at Arthur Turner Training School in Pang.

Two years later, in 1993, they married, the second marriage for both. Four years ago, they moved to Winnipeg, where Roy had kept ownership of his residence. Bowkett restarted her business.

Bowkett knows fur is a touchy subject in the south.

Seal and caribou furs are much warmer than fabric and allow moisture to escape, she explained. It's even truer in places like Pang, where temperatures get below -40 C and some homes have to be anchored to the ground with steel cables so they won't blow away.

But the arctic air seems to have health benefits, too. Bowkett's "beautiful great grandmother" lived to 106, and her "beautiful grandmother" to 103, she said.

Bowkett injects the word "beautiful" whenever speaking of her ancestors.

Many of her customers are from the Arctic.

She has also sold clothes to people in places like Switzerland, Holland, the U.S., Belgium, China and Japan. She made clothing for the movie The Snow Walker, based on Farley Mowat's novel.

She does all the work by hand.

A parka will take up to five weeks to complete but she will work on kamiks and mitts at the same time.

Parkas sell in the $1,300 range; kamiks from $550 to $800. She is not hard up for customers.

She cuts the hides with an ulu over top of her thumbnail, using the back of her nail like a cutting board.

There is no wood in Pang, she explained.

She chews the seal skin hides to soften them to work with. This isn't a two-minute process.

She may have to chew the hides, which come in as stiff as boards, for a couple of hours. You might think she watches TV to pass the time. You'd be wrong.

"I don't enjoy electronics," she said. "When I chew, I think about my ancestors."

She will use an inner felt boot for her kamiks.

In parkas, she often uses duffle, the heavy wool cloth first brought to Nunavut by Scottish whalers in the 1850s, or duck down she plucks herself.

Bowkett is discovering much to like about Winnipeg, too.

The fur industry here means she can get the materials she needs.

She also appreciates access to the city's large wholesale clothing sector and "the friendly people" of Winnipeg.

She misses hunting, though.

In addition to the polar bear, she has shot a wolf and a musk ox.

She has hunted seal and caribou; caught Arctic char and clams; picked seaweed, blackberries and blueberries. "We use our animals for food and warmth," she explained of Inuit people.

Her business is not on the Internet, but she can be reached at (204) 487-4689.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2011 A4

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