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Wearable Art for the Hunter

by Darrell Hookey

    Poor Tom. He's a wilderness guide and has to work outside in the rain and snow, hefting canoes onto his shoulders and carrying fire wood cradled in his arms.

Kluane moosehide jacket by Leisa Gattie-Thurmer - click to enlarge     Tom Thurmer would love to have one of those moose skin shirts or bush jackets he sees the other guides and hunters wearing. They are tough, wind-proof, dry, easy to keep clean and warm. But with an irony usually reserved for mechanics' wives who drive the worst-maintained cars on the block, he is married to the woman who makes the shirts.

    Leisa Gattie-Thurmer is the owner and operator of Skinz, a home-based business that makes these rugged, yet fashionable, shirts. Hunters consider her shirts to be a badge of honor when it is made from a moose or caribou they have shot.

    Gattie-Thurmer spreads a skin out on her work table and surveys the gouges from the de-hairing process. The honey colour of the skin washes over the flaws and joins them with the cuts and scrapes of a life lived in the Yukon bush.

    "Oh, there," Gattie-Thurmer points to a hole too round to be nature-made. "It's the bullet hole." The customer will decide if the bullet hole is part of the finished product. Probably, she guesses, since it is part of the story. Yukon hunters recognize her shirts and will usually figure out why they are worn so proudly.

    Gattie-Thurmer says some wives of hunters understand how special these shirts can be. They bring in skins from seasons passed, ignored until some purpose can be found, and ask that a shirt be made as a gift. It starts with a phone call. Gattie-Thurmer asks her customers to have it tanned first and then bring it to her.

    She has three patterns to choose from: The Watson Bush Shirt, a pullover; The Kluane, a button-up jacket; and The Donjek Jacket, more fitted for women. Or, she can custom design a shirt with the help of the customer.

    Long enough to keep the kidneys warm? No collar to reduce weight? Pockets? High in the hips for easy movement? Some customers want wide sleeves to fit over mitts. Others want tapered sleeves to fit under mitts. Between modifications and the pattern of flaws, every shirt ends up unique.

    And then the years start to work on the look of the shirt. The sun softens the color and the natural oils dry up leaving cracks for a "distressed" look. It is a rugged look desired in some of the more trendy fashions.

    With a sketch in hand, measurements taken, Gattie-Thurmer needs to puzzle together the pattern. She appraises the skin and begins to decide where the large torso pieces will come from. Does it leave enough room for the sleeves? Is it getting too close to the stretchy belly area?

    What about the thicker skin that covered the spine? Would it be best used for the shoulders where the different texture will enhance the overall look?

    If Gattie-Thurmer is concerned enough, she will make the shirt out of cotton first instead of risking the skin.

    Seamstresses may wince at the idea of working with a heavy material like leather. But Gattie-Thurmer's special scissors cut through it like butter. And her sewing machine is a steel-encased, industrial Mason with walking feet and a belt that looks like it came out of a small car.

    From a distance it looks like she is working on nothing more weighty than a party dress. The image is spoiled when she pulls out her hammer and contact cement to smooth out the seams. She is quick to point out it is "her" hammer. The head must be kept perfectly smooth to avoid damaging the skin.

    A lining of cotton-back, polyester-satin is recommended to allow it to be slipped on and off easily. Nothing thicker is needed since the shirts are warm enough on most winter days with just a sweater underneath.

    Gattie-Thurmer prefers to leave the finished product to hang for a week to allow it to stretch and settle. A few adjustments and it is done. A shirt from one of her patterns is $250. Add to that the cost of tanning the skin and you have a shirt worth as much as $500. At that price it is still appealing to her other clientele: European tourists.

    If nothing else is going on in her life, she can finish a shirt in a week. That doesn't happen often since she has a full-time job teaching textiles and First Nations art and culture at Porter Creek Secondary School. She is also mother to Tynan, 11, and Reina, 6.

    Sundays are family days and she won't work at night until the children are in bed. If her husband isn't away on a trip and doesn't have any projects around their new north-end home, she might get a Saturday to work. Unfortunately, he probably won't be getting his own shirt any time soon.

You can contact Leisa at tomandleisa@yt.sympatico.ca, and see more information about her clothing at her Web site, http://www.yukonskinz.com.