Sarah McHugh has sold many mittens over the past winter. The Dawson City artist’s hand-stitched hide and fur garments have been shipped to five different countries—France, Japan, Germany, Italy and the U.S., including 48 lower states and Alaska— and across Canada.
Closer to home, her craft keeps Iditarod musher Karen Ramstead, Yukon Quest musher Mike Ellis and other mushers warm.
Her sewing adventure and accessory and garment label, Mad Mitter’s Luxury Furs, began with mushing.
McHugh grew up in Ross River and Faro, and has always loved sled dogs. She had a small team for recreation and followed the Quest, dreaming of running it.
When she got together with husband, Hayden, 12 years ago, they moved from Dawson to Alberta. While down there they looked into different breeds and blood lines.
They decided to get Siberian huskies as McHugh wanted them when she was a kid. So they started out by breeding a couple of litters.
They kept most of them, then decided to move home to the Yukon.
Hayden got a job at the CanTung mine in the Northwest Territories and they moved to Faro, which was where McHugh wanted to be. However, there was very little work and while Hayden spent a winter in Yellowknife, McHugh stayed in Faro.
Then Hayden got a job in Dawson, so they moved back to Dawson.
Meanwhile, McHugh continued to breed the Siberians. She wanted 25 to choose from for the racing.
Two summers ago, McHugh was at a complete stop on Front Street in Dawson when her truck was hit by anothervehicle, leaving her with a severe back and neck injury.
Ever since then she has been attending physio and massage, trying to get back into shape. She is still in pain most days.
She used to do labour work, such as expediting and outfitting camps, but no longer able do the physical stuff and with no experience with any kind of office work, she knew she needed something else to do.
McHugh learned to sew from Hayden’s mom, Eldria Christensen.
Christensen learned the traditional ways of sewing from her mother. McHugh says it’s amazing learning from Christensen—she is very helpful and has shared her patterns along the way.
Purses and barrettes. Photo by Sarah McHugh
McHugh’s first project was a beaver fur hat for Hayden, and a pair of beaver fur mitts, using commercially-tanned skin.
Then Hayden bought her a traditionally-tanned moose hide and she has never gone back to using commercial hide. The traditionally-tanned moose hide is so soft and aromatic with a wood smoke smell, she says.
She began to explore different types of furs, such as sheared red and white beaver, and wolf furs, discovering colours and the different combinations. She found this was an artful and exciting way to sew with fur.
McHugh beads as well, and has been working on putting together a vest. Although she doesn’t do much bead work, she does enjoy doing big designs, like a large moose head for the back of the vest.
She finds it like painting, but with beads instead.
She says she loves to sew stuff that provide the wearer with something warm and beautiful, and her real love comes when she creates something different, such as red sheared beaver mitts with silver fox cuffs.
With the same approach as beads, she uses furs like paints.
Fur is important to her as it has played a role in warmth, fashion and status. Only the best of the hunters and their families had furs such as wolf and wolverine.
Traditionally, men wore the dark wolverine fur, while the women had the light colour, with claws for defense against attackers.
She uses the best quality of materials possible. Her lynx, wolf and wolverine furs are purchased from local trappers, and her traditional tanned moose, elk and caribou are from local tanners.
Measuring the skin. Photo by Sarah McHugh
Purchasing materials in the coldest months of the year ensures full, fluffy, prime furs, and provides the best warmth when made into a garment.
With the scraps she makes purses, change purses, and hopes to learn how to make dolls.
Living in cabin with no power, everything she sews is by hand.
McHugh has a wide array of ready-made mitts and hats, but will do custom orders as well for size, texture and colours.
A few weeks ago she attended the Adäka Cultural Festival, and hopes to make garments for a living.
She says she loves to provide someone with a beautiful set of mitts that can keep their hands warm everyday back and forth to work, or as they travel across Alaska or the Yukon, something so beautiful you would never forget them or lose them.
She says she loses her cheap mitts, but always knows where the fur ones are.
“You do not lose fur mitts,” she says.
Rebecca Hogarth has been a resident of Dawson City since 2007. She feels the energy of the Yukon and the encouraging people within allow her to shine in so many ways.