January 18, 2013 6:45 pm

First Person: Audrey Armstrong

‘I make fashion out of fish skin’
Audrey Armstrong makes hand-sewn fish-skin bags©Chris Arend

Audrey Armstrong shows off one of her hand-sewn fish-skin bags

You can make many things from fish skin, but first you have to catch your fish. I live in Alaska and in the summer the weather is beautiful, so that is when I fly-fish, standing in the water for between eight and 10 hours every day. Winters are freezing – I’m stuck at home then, so that is when I sew. I treasure every piece of fish skin because it is so hard to get.

After I have cleaned and preserved the skins, I am ready to sew. The preserving process takes a few days – if it’s done properly a fish skin will last a long time. There is a bag in the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum that has stayed intact since 1879.

I make jewellery, bags and clothing – such as jackets, parkas and boots – out of fish skin. I have made tiny earrings out of halibut, and I often use rainbow trout and Dolly Varden, which is like a trout. My favourite is salmon skin, especially king salmon, because of its beautiful colours and its durability – it is so thick and strong.

I work in my house and when I take the skins out of the cooler my family goes “Oh my God” and complains about the smell. Of course, by the time I have turned the skin into jewellery or clothing the smell has gone. But I was raised with fish all around anyway, so the smell never bothers me.

I sell my work, but really only to people who know about me. I don’t advertise, and I can never take orders, because I need to have the fish skin first. That can be difficult because of fishing restrictions.

I do much of my fishing on the Russian river, where there are a lot of bears. I have had bears coming quite close, but they don’t want to bother you – they just want the fish. If you leave the heads around, it will attract them, but I wouldn’t do that anyway because I cook them – I love fish-head soup. I don’t waste any part except the guts, but I take those away with me.

I grew up in a small village, 700 miles from Anchorage. To survive we had to catch fish, bear, caribou – native food. As a young girl I was a tomboy. I loved mushing dogs – using them to pull sleds – chopping wood, anything outdoors. Whenever my mom tried to get me to do sewing I would say: “Who likes sewing?”

But now, if I didn’t have my art I don’t know what I would do. It gives me such great pleasure and it is an honour knowing that I am bringing back something that in times gone by was made by other native Athabascans like me.

My people have been doing this for more than a century, but the quality of my work doesn’t compare to the things my ancestors made. No one really does that sort of work now.

A local artist called Fran Reed taught me this art and eventually she asked me to take over her class. I worked at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage for 35 years as an auxiliary patient services co-ordinator and director of the volunteer services. But when I retired six years ago I decided to work with fish skin full-time.

The attention I have received has been mind-boggling. It is a bit overwhelming but also wonderful. Just from the publicity this one guy brought me a couple of pieces of salmon and promised to get more this year.

I am still experimenting, coming up with new things to make. Recently I decided to put strips of mink skin around my latest bag, alternating with the fish skin, then put bear skin on the top of it. I like using beads too because we Athabascans are very good at bead work – women around here do a lot of it.

Some day it would be great if I could wear a whole outfit made out of fish skin, but I will need to get the fish skin first.

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