Econ 919 — Sew Yup'ik makes locally sewn qaspeqs

Oct 23, 2020

Nikki Corbett and daughter Sydney among a colorful bunch of homemade qaspeqs and bags.
Credit Courtesy of Nikki Corbett

In a purple qaspeq with blue trim and patterned patches, Nikki Corbett and her sewing machine greet her YouTube subscribers.

“Hi, it’s Nikki with Sew Yup’ik. And today I’m going to show you, I’m going to record a video in various parts. So this first part I’m going to show you how to add the trimming onto your traditional qaspeq.”

She instructs viewers in this video, almost 500 of them, how to make a qaspeq, a hooded garment with a large front pocket and hood typically worn by Yup’ik men and women. 

Corbett is Yup’ik and grew up in Bethel. She moved to Soldotna five years ago to join family.

Sew Yup’ik is her sewing business and qaspeqs are her most popular ware, but she also makes koozies and makeup bags out of fabric scraps. She teaches make-your-own-qaspeq classes. 

It’s a sort of side gig for Corbett. The nice thing about that is she can sew when she wants to.

“I realized that taking orders was stressful and just kind of took the fun out of sewing for me,” she said. “And so instead of taking orders I just started doing what I wanted to do, ’cause sewing is kind of like therapeutic for me. … And if folks purchase them, great, if not, they just sit in my sewing room and I’m not out there pushing my products.”

Even so, she has quite a following, including more than 5,000 followers on Facebook and a group of over 300 that functions as a sort of online Sew Yup’ik community. All this from a business she started on her kitchen table five years ago, out of a love for making qaspeqs for herself and friends. 

Corbett made her first qaspeq when she was nine or 10 and got really into sewing in her 20s. Through a small business grant, she purchased a Janome sewing machine and has a cheaper Brother machine for traveling.

Prior to the pandemic, Corbett taught qaspeq making across Alaska, including at a Native arts camp in Bethel.

“Usually, back home in Bethel, I teach them through the Kuskokwim campus, cause I’m a UA adjunct instructor, so I can teach them through the university system,” she said. “And then other times I just get requests.”

Her pupils have spanned the gamut geographically and age-wise.

“I’ve taught anywhere from ages 8 to 90,” she said. “I really enjoy just teaching to anyone who wants to learn. It’s kind of a lost skill unless you’ve got a family member teaching you at home. So it’s something that isn’t really being passed down. And so I’m really open to teaching to whoever’s willing to learn.”

Corbett said in Bethel, she’d wear qaspeqs for most occasions. She learned from a family member.

“Growing up, my grandmother and my aunties would make me them, and they were always making them,” she said. “So I have a lot of my grandmother’s and my auntie’s qaspeqs that were my moms and that now are mine.”

Corbett channeled her sewing into mask-making this year and donated hundreds to health workers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. The Association of Village Council Presidents recognized her with a small business award.

Director of Communications Azara Mohammadi said she was chosen in part for how she used social media to mobilize other sewers.

“Nikki really jumped right in and shared tutorials and mask-making information on her website and on YouTube, encouraging her followers to create masks and donate them to their healthcare workers and their communities,” Mohammadi said. “She donated at least 350 masks to healthcare workers, and after that she stopped counting.”

Corbett was also given the Alaska Federation of Natives President’s Award for Small Businesses.

Corbett charges around $115 per qaspeq. She said whether or not she’s motivated to do a lot of sewing determines how many qaspeqs she makes in a given time. But she does do a lot of stress sewing, she said.

And it seems like there can never be too many qaspeqs, or qaspeq-makers.

“There are so many qaspeq-makers around the state and, honestly, I don’t think you can have enough, ’cause there’s such a demand for men and women that want to purchase them for themselves or their family or their kid,” she said. “I don’t think there will ever be enough qaspeq-makers for the demand that folks want.”

Corbett is on Facebook and Instagram @sewyupik.