Bethel Native Reimagines Qaspeq

Michelle Konig Works on a Qaspeq with Annie Woods. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK - Bethel)
Michelle Konig Works on a Qaspeq with Annie Woods. (Photo by Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel)

One Alaska Native woman is putting a new spin on the traditional qaspeq. Michelle Konig uses stretchy fabric and a unique pattern to make the modern qaspeqs. With a label under her own name, the designer can barely keep up with orders and is now traveling around the state teaching others to make her designs.

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At the last minute, Michelle Konig decided to sew a batch of qaspeqs to sell at Camai Dance festival to make a little extra money for a trip to California.

“I made the traditional qaskpek a little bit too small for an adult and I decided to add, I called it stretchy fabric at the time, but it’s jersey knit.”

She ripped side seams out and added a panel of the jersey material. She also made some other alterations.

“Instead of using qaspeq fabric for the sleeves I decided to also use the jersey knit for the sleeves along with the waistband and instead of hood, I decided to make a cowl.”

A qaspeq is a lightweight parka or over shirt worn by Alaska Native women and men, usually a cotton tunic with an oversized pocket and a hood. The garment was originally made of animal skin or gut and was worn over a fur parka to keep it clean.

As stores became more common in remote bush villages Natives began making them out of calico grain sacks. They are now generally made from cotton material.

Konig often uses batik material and heathered knits and embroiders instead of using rickrack trim, creating a more tailored silhouette than a traditional qaspeq.

Konig grew up in Bethel but now lives in Kenai. She balances her designer qaspeq business with raising three kids. She learned to sew at a young age and remembers drawing clothes as a child. But she wasn’t always a pro.

“My first time makin’ a qaspeq was probably in the 3rd grade with my Yup’ik teacher. And I thought I’d be quick. It was a torso piece and she wanted us to sew the top and the sides but leave the hole opening for the arms, which I didn’t do. Instead, I made (laughs) a tube so … She looked at my sewing and started laughing and said, ‘how are you gonna put your arms through!’”

But with practice she got better. And then one day when she was 21 and her grandmother was teaching her to make qaspeq something happened.

“It never really came to me that making clothing would be my career until I had my grandmother teach me the first time using a sewing machine and making a qaspeq.”

Her grandmother wanted to do it the traditional way, but Konig had other ideas. Lots of them. Those ideas coalesced under pressure as she created her modern day qaspek prototype that day at the Camai craft sale.

Once people started seeing her original designer qaspeq around her hometown of Bethel, word spread and orders started trickling in. She says she doesn’t really had to advertise and does a lot of custom orders through facebook. Since starting her business last fall, she she’s had around a hundred orders and had to hire another seamstress to keep up. She hopes her story encourages other women to start their own businesses.

“I feel like I’m inspiring other women to experiment with their crafts, also to get their name out there because of their unique idea.”

Konig is now in the process of patenting her modern qaspeq pattern and she’s developing her own clothing line. She’s working on a website with hopes to eventually have a storefront in Anchorage. Konig is now touring around Alaska teaching people to make her modern qaspeq.

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Daysha Eaton is the News Director at KBBI in Homer. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.