April Tawipisim opened Turtle Woman Indigenous Wear at the beginning of August.
She and her fellow seamstresses, Dawn Flett and Marilyn Harris, work in-store to make ribbon skirts and shirts and regalia.
Tawipisim began sewing ribbon skirts while on a journey to reclaim her identity as a Cree woman.
"I did not always know my culture," she said. "We were raised as Christians. My mom went to residential school."
Tawipisim was born in Brochet, Man., and is a member of the Barren Lands First Nation. She moved to Winnipeg last year from Thompson, Man., where she had worked and lived for most of her life.
Going to powwows and sweats, along with creating art through sewing and beading, have been a part of Tawipisim’s exploration of her identity—a process she has seen more and more Indigenous Peoples following.
During the pandemic, she was busy sewing at home and amassed a collection of skirts and jingle dresses. Having always wanted to open her own business, Tawipisim decided now was the right time.
The store has been humming since it opened, with over 80 ribbon skirts sold as of the beginning of September, with orders for dozens more keeping the sewing machines running.
Ribbon skirts have different meanings for every tribe and community, Tawipisim explained.
"From the feedback I’ve received, everyone has been saying, ‘Thank you for opening something like this. This is exactly what we need,’" she said.
The response from people living around Turtle Woman Indigenous Wear has been positive. Tawipisim said many community members have dropped in to welcome her to the neighbourhood.
When Turtle Woman Indigenous Wear had just opened, a couple came in looking for a ribbon skirt and ribbon shirt for a wedding the following weekend. To the couple’s delight, Tawipisim quickly created two custom pieces in blue and white satin.
Tawipisim and her team sell made-to-order garments, as well as off-the-rack creations sewn in-store. Tawipisim, Flett and Harris work right behind the sales floor, near rolls of fabric and spools of glossy ribbon. The store also features a wall of artwork, jewelry and accessories made by local Indigenous artists.
Flett joined the store as a full-time seamstress at the end of August. She’ll be focusing her efforts on ribbon shirts and regalia but will also be creating her signature square dance outfits.
Flett got her start making these outfits for her grandchildren and, more recently, for her traditional Red River Métis dance group, the Asham Stompers.
Flett beams as she recalls the feeling she gets when a line of dancers step out onto the stage wearing something she’s poured her soul into.
The first set of outfits she ever made were a set of dresses for her daughters to wear during their kindergarten and nursery school graduation ceremonies.
"When I got my first sewing machine, I was so excited," she said.
From modest beginnings, Flett has expanded her toolkit to include a Kenmore, a Brother, a Singer and a pair of sergers.
"When I’m sewing, that’s where my heart is," she said.
Turtle Woman Indigenous Wear is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday.
Katlyn Streilein is the reporter/photgrapher for The Metro.