By Jenny Neyman
Who knew moose could be so stylish? If the ungulates walked around with their hair dyed such vibrant hues of red, blue and pink and as artfully arranged as it becomes in the craft of hair tufting, they would no longer blend in as large brown lumps in the landscape.
Hair tufting in Alaska and Western Canada traces its roots as a Native craft back to the Yukon, where it was used as embellishment on all manner of hand-sewn skin garments, such as dresses, baby carriers and mittens.
“It originated over in the Yukon Territory about 100 years ago. We’re not sure what kind of scissors they used at that time,” said Emma Hildebrand, an artist and craftsperson in Anchorage.
The finished product results in soft, nubbly bundles of hair usually arranged into flower shapes, which creates a vivid textural juxtaposition to the small, delicate beadwork that usually accompanies the tufts.
“It’s just really unique and really cool,” Hildebrand said. “The beads and the tufting together, they make such a nice finished product. One without the other just doesn’t quite look right.”
Hildebrand grew up in Northway doing skin sewing and beading, skills learned from her mother, an Athabascan from the McGrath area. She first came across the tufting craft about 28 years ago, and had Athabascan artist Dixie Alexander, from Fort Yukon, teach her the skill.
As is the Native tradition with artwork and crafts, once learned it is time to pass it on. She’s
taught beadwork and skin sewing for years, and added hair tufting to her workshop repertoire. She spent most her life in Northway and taught through the University of Alaska, traveling up and down the Yukon and Kuskowkim rivers and into the Tok area to give classes.
After moving to Anchorage about five years ago, she’s found a whole new population of crafters eagerly interested in learning the skill. On March 19 and 20, she was in Kenai teaching a two-day workshop to four rapt pupils.
“I think they’re gorgeous and I just wanted to figure out how to do this,” said Amy Rogde.
“I do beadwork and I do skin sewing and I’ve seen tufting before,” said Sondra Shaginoff-Stuart. “I’ve always wanted to learn. I thought it was really fascinating. I couldn’t figure it out by looking at it how to do it myself.”
That’s where Hildebrand comes in. She was invited to come teach a workshop by Sophia Anderson, owner of Aurora Gift and Gallery in Kenai, in the strip mall between Arby’s and the Uptown Motel on the Kenai Spur Highway.
About 15 years ago Anderson bought a necklace that Hildebrand had made with hair tufting decoration and was enthralled with it.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” Anderson said. “I read about it, but I couldn’t find anyone to teach me until I saw her again.”
The two had tables across from each other at an Alaska Federation of Natives meeting, and arranged for Hildebrand to come to Anderson’s shop and teach. Over the two-day class, she laid out all the necessary tools of the trade — moose or caribou hide with hair still attached, that Hildebrand’s sister had dyed a variety of bright colors. Chunks of tanned moose hide to sew on, imitation sinew to secure the hair to the hide, fine-pointed scissors to trim the hair into the desired shapes, metal tins to catch the trimmings and — highly important — sticky lint rollers to contain the messy creativity that ensues.
“It’s a good idea to do this outside if you can, so the wind just kind of blows it away because the hair is very staticy,” Hildebrand said.
Tufting must be done with hollow hair, such as from moose or caribou. Loops are stitched
and anchored into the moose hide, hair is pulled through the loop, then the stitch is pulled tight, causing the hair to pinch together and stand upright.
“(Hollow hair) just allows it to be pinched together in the middle, which holds it tight and then allows you to put a lot of hair in one place,” Hildebrand said. “If you use hair that isn’t hollow, and there are parts of the caribou (or moose) hair that aren’t, it just kind of lies flat and doesn’t stand up.”
Once the tuft is secured, it’s carefully trimmed down to create flower shapes. Tufting, like sculpture, is an art of reduction — cutting away, rather than adding on, to achieve a desired shape.
“You have to be able to see it in your head,” Hildebrand said.
That can be challenging for beginners.
“I think you sort of have to have an eye for symmetry,” said Karen Fogarty, another of the workshop participants.
Cut too much and it can’t be replaced.
“Then you have to cut the whole thing off and start again,” Hildebrand said.
“Yeah, we learned that today,” Shaginoff-Stuart said.
Once it’s demonstrated tufting isn’t necessarily difficult to do, but the knots involved and some of the other steps do require instruction to learn, she said.
“It’s easier than what it looks like but it definitely takes some technique to learn it. You do need to know it and practice it,” Shaginoff-Stuart said. “I was going to suggest she (Hildebrand) should do an art camp, too, because I couldn’t sit here and learn this then turn around and say I could teach it. There’s no way. There’s definitely tricks and definitely a technique to it.”
Once the technique is learned, it’s just a matter of obtaining the materials in order to take up the craft. Pieces of moose hide big enough for a pin, hair clip or set of earrings would cost between $5 and $10, Anderson said. Wads of moose or caribou hair can be obtained from tanners, and can be purchased pre-dyed or can be dyed whatever color is desired using wool dye.
Beyond that, the imitation sinew, scissors and other items for added embellishment are readily available.
“Beads from the bead shops. Porcupine quills, road kill,” Hildebrand said.
One tufted pin or set of earrings may take about five hours to make. That’s time well spent, accordiang to Shaginoff-Stuart.
“I’m going to take some practice doing mine. I’m definitely enjoying it,” she said.