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Alaska ethnic necklace made of carved silver and lamp glass beads
  1. Fairbanks has many great artist
  2. The Athabatscan beading technique permits great patterns
  3. Even the trim is beaded
  4. The cut of a Kuspak
  5. Tourists love to buy art as souvenirs
  6. Where to buy pieces made by Alaskan Native artists

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Fairbanks has many great artists

Fairbanks has a vivid arts scene with a First Friday culture where galleries, specialty stores, and the visitor center host shows and receptions for the public while featuring one or more brilliant local artists. Guests can buy unique artworks directly from the artists.

Alaska wood and stone carved artwork
Stone and wood carved circle of the five directions displaying hunting and fishing


Here the word “local” refers to artists from as far away as north of the Alaska Range in the South to the Arctic Ocean in the North and the Interior all along the Tanana River and medium run of the Yukon River. In Fairbanks, oil painting, quilting, glass art of various kinds, silver smiting, sculpturing and jewelry crafting are big. Alaskan native artists living along the Arctic Ocean and the Bering Sea are famous for their seal mukluks, and ivory carving. Silver carving is big in the Alaska Southwest. In the Interior, Athabascan Indian artists are famous for their handmade bead works, dolls and skin sewing as well as spruce, birch and grass baskets. These baskets are so artful and well-made that there is even an entire collection  at the Museum of the North.

carved silver necklace with lamp beads
Carved silver necklace with red glass lamp beads on caribou hide

The Athabatscan beading technique permits great patterns

What I find interesting about the beading is technique. On felt, it is done with one beading needle. Often waxed dental floss is used to sew on one bead at a time. When the bead design is applied directly on leather, typically two needles are used. A sewing needle serves to go thru the leather. Once on the right (beaded) side, the sewing needle secures the thread between the beads that are picked up with the beading needle. Then the sewing needle is pushed back to the left side while the beading needle remains on the right side all the time to pick up new beats on its thread. Sometimes three or four beads are secured at a time. It is fun watching the artist doing the beading.

#Alaska #travel beading on mittens
Athabascan Indian beading on a felt sewn onto shearling mittens

Even the trim is beaded

The beads can also be used to put a bead finish at the edge of an ornament. The needle is pushed from the edge of the wrong side of the piece to be ornamented. Once the needle is on the right side, three beads are put on the string. Then the needle is pushed thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead. Then the needle is put up thru the center of the first bead, which is somehow tricky. It works best with beads with large wholes. Then two other beads are put on the thread, the needle is pushed thru the right side at the edge just in touch with the first bead of the last three beads. Then the needle is put up thru the center of that bead. Then two other beads are put on the thread, …. Repeat until the entire edge of the piece has its ornament.

#hairjewelry traditionally beaded hair pin
Front and back side of a modern barrette with traditional Athabascan Indian beading motive and ornamented edge using the technique described in the post

The cut of a Kuspak

Kuspaks are cut straight up and down, i.e. they aren’t figure flattering and do not show any feminine features. However, they are incredibly designed with respect to life in Alaska. Therefore, most Alaskan women have at least one kuspak. The hood fits tight to the face and prohibits mosquitoes from biting the neck when berry picking or gardening. Traditionally, it is worn over pants (jeans). It comes in two lengths – upper tights (tunic lengths) or just above the knee. The latter can be worn alternatively as a dress. Kuspaks come with or without skirt. In the front they have a big pocket that can be accessed from both sides. Along the pocket, hood and the hem or in case of a skirt above the skirt attachment to the garment there is some embroidery and/or zig zag embellishment. The fabric is printed tightly weaved cotton. Check the Farmer’s Market for hand-made kuspaks.

influencer in Alaska kuspak
Olivero jeans with Aggie Bostrom kuspak and carved silver lamp glass bead necklace (all own)


One of the most famous jewelry makers of the Interior is Judi Gumm. Her pieces look very organic, but a bit abstract. You often only on second sight recognize that the piece features an animal roaming the great outdoors. The photo below shows a brooch my husband gave me as a gift when we visited Denali Park for the first time. You can find more pieces of Judi Gumm at the link.

Judi Gumm rabbit with pearl
Judi Gumm rabbit with pearl

Tourists love to buy art as souvenirs

These native artists link the past to the current and bridge the cultures. Their bead works encompasses traditional items like beautifully beaded moose hide slippers or booties, regalia, head bands, mittens and belts, as well as modern items like modern day hair pins with traditional beading embellishment, or earrings with porcupine spines. The parkas and kuspaks are of great interest for the Fairbanks and tourist fashionistas.

Very expensive souvenirs are mittens, scarves and hats hand-made from Alaksa qiviut. Qiviut is the underwool of musk-oxen. It has the highest insulation factor, i.e. it keeps you warm at 40 below. Read more about musk-ox fashion and the unique knitting pattern.

humming bird cuff
Carved silver cuff with Hummingbird and forget-me-not motives

Where to buy pieces made by Alaskan Native artists

Fairbanks is a destination. Today you don’t come thru like it was the case during the times of the Iron Curtain. Thus, when you visit Fairbanks and don’t have a First Friday during your stay you may find authentic Native Alaskan Art also at the Morris Thompson Visitor Center, in the souvenir stores in town as well as in the galleries and the souvenir section of the Museum of the North. Besides the basket collection, the Museum of the North also has a large collection of paintings by Alaskan artists. Just go in to browse to see the diversity of Alaska art for yourself.

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Photos of me: G. Kramm
Other photos: N. Mölders

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