“Design for me is therapy,” says Becki Bitternose. This disclosure comes after much thoughtful, even hesitant conversation. There is an atmosphere of quiet around her, things are hushed even as her family converses and plays in the house close at hand. Her tidy sewing table sits central to the front room and the jackets she is quickly gaining fame for in the fashion world hang in nearby racks. Fame was not on her mind when she made her first attempt at sewing in 2013. Her children were.
“I always wanted to try sewing and I wanted to make jackets for my kids,” she says adamantly when asked about the many fashion shows where she has presented her work—mostly in Saskatchewan but also in New York, and in November 2017, in Paris. “I never set out to do this. It’s crazy.”
The “this” is travelling and presenting her work amid the glamour and tumult of haute couture. It is, however, the jackets she makes and she shows that need to be explained before her meteoric rise can be understood. Bitternose makes jackets in a most unconventional way that at first seems simple. Each jacket starts with a single Pendleton blanket. Pendleton Blankets was founded in Oregon in 1893 and since 1909 has produced blankets, robes, and shawls for North American Indigenous tribes. The blankets are made of pure wool and their designs are reflective of Indigenous art and incorporate the brightest of colours.
As a base material for a jacket, the blankets are simply beautiful. They are quite expensive so you’d expect that Bitternose would use a thoroughly refined pattern to ensure a predictable outcome every time. That is, in fact, not at all how she does it.
“When I sew I envision something in my head, throw a blanket down on the floor, and draw and cut and put it together,” she says of her whole process. “Every piece is different. It’s just whatever comes from the blanket is what the jacket becomes. So when I do custom orders, you just kinda got to go with it. You can’t really request something specific. It just happens.”
This is why Bitternose seems to shy away from being defined as a designer. She has made more than 100 jackets so far. Many of these have been for the graduates of the Kawacatoose Head Start Program. The first jacket Bitternose made after she finished those for her children was for an aunt. “I didn’t think I had the confidence to do it but my aunt just dropped the blanket off,” she recalls. “I sat on it for about three days. Finally I thought that if I wrecked it we’d just buy a new one. Once I got started I had it done in two days.”
Read the rest of Becki Bitternose’s story in the special double Fall/Winter issue of Prairies North.