'A form of healing': How Pendleton coat workshops became a place to share grief

Stephanie Crowchild poses with her Pendleton coat. She's taught over 100 people make this style of jacket and recently held a workshop in Yellowknife. (Stephanie Crowchild/Facebook - image credit)
Stephanie Crowchild poses with her Pendleton coat. She's taught over 100 people make this style of jacket and recently held a workshop in Yellowknife. (Stephanie Crowchild/Facebook - image credit)

Stephanie Crowchild made her first Pendleton coat at age 17, with the guidance of her mom and aunt.

The coat, made from the thick woolen Pendleton blanket, marked the start of her journey into teaching others the craft of coat making — and healing at the same time.

Crowchild, who is behind the brand Stephanie Eagletail designs, is from the Tsuu T'ina First Nation in southern Alberta. Eagletail is her maiden name.

"I had always loved sewing, I always loved designing my own clothes. Ever since I was a child, I always remember … making my own little cardboard people and clothing."

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

It wasn't until she was in her 30s, with four children and the COVID pandemic had hit that she decided to start sewing again.

A friend of hers asked her if she would ever teach others how to make a coat.

"I was really hesitant at first. I'd never done that before. But my family encouraged me to give it a try ... so I gave it a try. And I really enjoyed it."

Since last spring, she's taught over 100 people how to make their own coats in communities from treaties one to 11. Recently, she held a four-day workshop as a guest instructor in Yellowknife. She'll hold another in the city starting Feb. 27.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

"I think my favourite thing is seeing the pride and the joy," she said. "The confidence that they show when we're doing the before and after videos."

But it's also something bigger.

"Sewing has always been … a form of healing for myself. As an Indigenous woman, I've experienced the adversities and challenges and the social and health inequities."

'Our form of connection'

Eagletail said when she teaches about coat making, she also spends time one-on-one with people where she tries to form a deeper connection with them and allow them to share their experiences with one another.

"People tell me things … and it's when we're alone, when I'm guiding them through their first cut of the blanket, I really honour that, and I cherish the relationships that I'm building with each individual," she said.

"We're healing together, I'm healing with them. And sewing is our form of connection as women."

She said men have also joined the class too.

Her advice to those who feel hesitant to try is to give it a shot.

"We were put on this earth to try things and experience things, as humans," she said.

"I've had beginners, people who have never sewn a day in their life, and they make a complete coat as their first project. And they didn't think they had it in them until they're wearing their finished coat."

A lesson on grief

For Katrina Drybones, who was part of the workshop, sewing is something she wanted to know for herself and pass along to her children. She had grandparents and aunties who sewed, but she took a break from it after she lost some close family members, including an aunt and her dad.

"I kind of just lost interest in sewing. And I just thought that, 'OK, like, I'm not going to go back into it. Because … it was emotional for me. And it would just seem so hard afterwards."

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

Just over a year later, Drybones decided to try again. She saw the workshop advertised, and signed up.

What she found were others like her.

"It was very self-soothing to know that there were other ladies out there that were wanting to sew and learn how to do all of these things. And I really felt like this is like a stepping stone for me," she said.

It also helped her take in a lesson about grief.

"We shouldn't grieve so hard for our lost ones," she said. "We should actually remember them as who they were, they were very strong people and they really loved the traditional knowledge and culture.

Now when she sews, she feels her loved ones with her.

"I think about the colour schemes and what my auntie would tell me and what my dad would show me when I was younger and it just brings a lot of happy memories for me," she said, "which makes me feel like they're here with me right now."

A form of knowledge sharing

A Yellowknife-based clothing designer who goes by the name Inuk also took part in the workshop.

"To learn this style of jacket making, it's really awesome. And we're not doing it by pattern," she said.

Jenna Dulewich/CBC
Jenna Dulewich/CBC

"Our instructor is teaching us how to do it like the old traditional way by using the width of our hands and a few measurements," she said.

"There's not enough people that share the knowledge."

Inuk said Crowchild told the participants that if they wished to sell the coats they made from her instruction, that they could.

"It's not often you come across somebody that will share that kind of knowledge with you and [let you] carry it on," Inuk said.

Inuk made the jackets for her twin French bulldogs, and says she may even incorporate some of her work into her clothing brank, Inuk360.

"It's really beautiful."