In 1971, Judy McGrath moved from Newfoundland to the northern community of Spence Bay (current day Taloyoak) for her husband’s posting as an Economic Development officer with the Northwest Territories Government. Coming from an artistic background in weaving, natural dyes, macramé, and teaching at St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre, she took stock of interesting or unique aspects of the local clothing being worn, making note of each one and asking her friend from the community, Arnaoyok ᐊᕐᓇᐅᔪᖅ Alookee, who had made them. The clothing spoke directly to the creativity and limitations of women’s local access to materials; one parka, for example, being embroidered with only one colour as the seamstress either had only enough money for one ball of yarn or had unraveled a sweater and reused the yarn for embroidery. Judy and Arnaoyok fielded the idea of locating funding and sourcing diverse materials for the local women to further extend their creativity through work, play, and experimentation as a group.
The first program was built from a $12,000 federal Manpower grant. There was a little house owned by the Department of Fisheries which wasn’t in use, so the group got permission to set up a loom up and craft supplies there in 1972. The project was open around the clock to participants, running on a 24/7 basis to accommodate women with families and other obligations, and those who had not worked at a regular job before. In that way the women could put their time in when it best suited them and their families. The main goal of the project was to have space to experiment and play, to see what was creatively possible. The project produced a wide range of craftwork, including finger-weaving, toys, hangings, and fashion. At this early stage, there was little talk of selling items, just giving shape to what was on peoples' minds. Some of the fashions created during the first workshop were later modeled in New York and became the basis of the business that followed. The group ran out of wool duffle for clothing towards the end of the project so, with unique ingenuity, the ladies made their own fabric by going through the duffle scraps, cutting the pieces into squares, and sewing them together to make ‘new’ yardage and a stunning parka.
At one point in this process, the Department of Fisheries decided they wanted to use their building again for storage but by this time the ladies had made it their own, taking responsibility for its care. It was their craft shop. After a series of letters by the ladies to fisheries and the government stating as much, the plan to use the building for storage was abandoned. The project continued to operate out of the 900 sq. ft. building with ten women experimenting with natural dyes, sewing all manner of ideas and housing all the supplies needed for the items being made. By the end of the first ten-week program, the women stated they couldn’t stop now, as they had even more ideas now than they did when they started. Some of them continued to come to the shop, though they weren’t being paid a salary, because they wanted to be there and work together.
Janet McGrath talks about the community focus behind Arnaqarvik
A manpower and training grant of $64,000 from LEAP and $30,000 from the NWT government allowed the project to continue in 1973, extending the experimental dye work and training 30 women to make the successful designs from the first project. Some of that funding was used to bring Eva Strickler to Taloyoak to assist with the expanding dye work. Judy and Eva had worked together at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s teaching crafts. She was not only a creative and talented craftsperson, but she had a keen sense of science, having worked with one of Europe’s largest dye and chemical companies, bringing much needed experience and knowledge to the natural dye work. That same year photographer Pam Harris of Toronto raised the resources to establish a darkroom in the craft shop and taught local residents how to use it.