My Visit with Nellie Winters
Posted 17 November 2015, 2:38 pm NST
Nellie Winters greats me at the door with a warm smile.

It is a cool October day in Makkovik, Nunatsiavut, and the sky cannot decide if it is raining or snowing. A cool wind is blowing in off the harbour and it feels good to step inside the warm and cozy house.

"Come in, come in," she says waving me into the porch, "I was just doing up the dishes. Had my family down for Sunday like I always do."

For 78-years-old Nellie is spry as they come.


Following her into the kitchen, the house still smells of jigs dinner, and a bowl of peas pudding with the indent of generous spoonfuls carved out in it sits neatly on the counter.

"I got out some of my crafts I've been working on," she says as she leads me to the living room, "I'm always working on something."

Nellie sits down on her couch, family photos, and art work depicting traditional ways of life hang on the wall. Before her is a spread on the coffee table of needles and thread in cookie tins, piles of cloth and seal skin, embroidery work, and hand crafted dolls. Above her is a large painting of her home, Okak Bay in Northern Nunatsiavut painted by her daughter Dinah Andersen.

Her eyes light up as she begins to talk about her work. You can hear the excitement and pride in her voice as she describes what she does.

"I've been doing crafts ever since I was young," she exclaims, "a lot of things I just make up on my own, but the seal skin things we learned from our parents."

You get the feeling that she can do almost anything artistic or craft related. Nellie sews, paints, does embroidery, works with duffle and seal skin. She makes clothing, jewelry, decorations, dolls, and the list goes on.

"I puts down one thing and starts something else," I get the feeling this is a woman that slows down for nothing, "I can think of things I'm going to make in the night time and I get up and I'll do them."

As we talk she picks up and begins working at some embroidery she's been working on with flowers of blue and purple, the shading and detail exquisite. Her hands, although aged, are nimble with decades of experience. She finishes a stem right before my eyes in what would take most people twice as long.

Nellie explains to me that the stitches have to be slanted, you do the lighter parts first, then the shaded area, and how she doesn't like knots but will instead do a few extra stitches in the back to secure the strings.

"Not too long ago I started putting my embroidery into frames because you put it on coats and mitts but after a while it disappears, but if you put it in a frame you got it forever," she says pointing to the wall where a few of her embroidered portraits of Inuit children playing, and some more like the flowers she is working on.

There is no doubt that Nellie Winters has had a tremendous impact on her community of Makkovik, and all of Nunatsiavut for that matter. Her children and grandchildren have picked up many of her skills in crafting, and many of them teach others. She has passed her skills on to many living in Makkovik, and has kept many crafting traditions alive.

Although she laments, "I think the older things like cleaning the sealskins and drying them is really dying out because the older people are dying out, not too many do that now."

Even though she says she still knows how to do the special stitching required for the waterproof black bottom sealskin boots she has not done it in a long time, and admits that it is much easier working with the professionally tanned sealskin, which is softer and more subtle, but lacks the waterproof quality of the raw sealskin required for black bottoms.

"I used to do real fancy duffle parkas and stuff," she proclaims proudly gesturing with her hands, "people used to give me the materials and I'd only get ten dollars back in the '60s and '70s. One time I used to do a lot of wedding dresses and graduation dresses, a lot."

Laying at her side is a pair of moose hide mitts with seal skin decorations and a rabbit fur trim. She picks it up and starts to secure the rabbit trim. On it is a picture of a seal sewn on, made from real seal fur. She explains how it's all put together.

Nellie puts down the mitt and picks up a scrap of sealskin with a seal drawn on the back and in about a minute cuts out the seal and snips away at the fur to make the detail of the animals flippers, and face, explaining to me what she's doing out loud as she goes. You can see the a long life of practice in each snip. She makes it look easy!

"I don't use patterns, I make patterns for other people but I just cut them out," however she is quick to add, "there's lots of good craft people but they can't just cut it out like that, they have to have a pattern to do it."

For all the work she has put into her craft she admits she doesn't always make back in money the effort that goes into her work. Even sometimes it is hard for her to part ways with particular items after investing so much time and energy into them.

"I love doing it I guess," she says looking out the window. "I know I don't get the worth of it some times, as long as I get enough to cover my materials and I done something nice I don't mind," a warm smile lighting up her face.

After a few more funny stories about growing up on the Nunatsiavut coast and demonstrations of her skills it is time to part ways.

I head back to the porch and put on my boots.

"Oh, I'm glad it's stopped raining" she says as I walk out the door. "I might take my four wheeler down to my son's later," waving to the machine besides her door.

I laugh, and wave good bye wishing that I will be lucky enough to be that lively at 78. I feel like I just got one of the best history lessons of my life.

by Ossie Michelin