After Mercedes Rabesca’s grandmother passed away, she needed to find someone else to teach her how to sew. This year, that grew into a program named Come Sew with Auntie.
For the first few years after her grandma passed, Rabesca – a 26-year-old from Behchokǫ̀ – took time away from her craft to grieve. When she felt like getting back into it, she struggled to find a new mentor.
She had heard of previous drop-in sewing groups from her aunt, Celine Whane, but thought a more structured sewing program could be more successful. Whane agreed to help her launch project-based classes for Behchokǫ̀ residents.
“Our first class together was beaver fur mittens,” Rabesca said. She held three workshops in the first month, attracting around 10 participants.
“It just picked up,” she said. “I wanted to do it a lot more because I really enjoyed the sewing classes and providing that sewing circle for everyone.”
Classes have been taught by Whane, Eva Mantla, Kassandra Migwi, and Wendana Lafferty. Rabesca says youth as young as 10 have come to learn sewing, as have teenage boys and some Elders.
Class sizes typically range from eight to 16 people. By early summer, around 100 people had taken a class. That number has now reached 150, making beaded earrings, phone grips, moccasins, and wrap-arounds
What started as a volunteer project for Rabesca has turned into part-time job organizing the classes.
“It’s slowly coming into a business and hopefully looking to be more full-time later in the future,” she said. Originally, she was able to find funding to cover the costs so the classes were free for participants. Recently, she has started charging participants to help pay instructors.
In the new year, she plans to offer classes making mukluks, mittens, jackets, and parkas. At the same time, she’ll be offering introductory courses for people who are just starting to get into sewing.
“Some people are going through a lot and when they sew, they start to feel better. They really like coming here because it gives them peace of mind,” Rabesca said.
“Other ladies say this gives them a little break, a little me-time for themselves, because they’re always working … just taking care of things. They feel empowered learning these traditional skills and how to put things together. Now they can do it for their kids and their grandbabies.”
Most people have been keeping finished projects for themselves and their families, but some have asked Rabesca to help her sell their projects.
At a holiday market this December, she encouraged a handful of artists to participate.
As for Rabesca, she has also found the sewing circle to be healing.
“I started to sew a lot more and try different projects. I try new techniques and new sewing. I started my first quilt – I’m pretty-much almost done, so I was pretty excited,” she said.
“I used to show my grandmother all my projects that I’d been doing. Now I show my mother, and she’s been really into sewing as well.”