Kuspuks - An Alaskan Fashion Statement

Contributed by Charice Chambers

Arctic poppy orange, verbena yellow, hot pink and greens of all shades – no, it’s not a description of the summer garden, its kuspuks! They can now be found at the Palmer Senior Center Gift Shop, along with many ladies who are discovering just how much fun these traditional Alaskan garments are to wear.

They are all the products of Bobbi Lewis, an Alaskan designer who lives near Talkeetna. Trained as a fashion designer, Bobbi, who found herself in Alaska, spent a number of years as a home economics teacher. She joined the Family and Community Education club, and soon was involved in selling tickets at many Palmer events, including parades and the annual Colony Christmas winter carnival. Though the club did well fund raising for charitable causes, folks often asked who they were. Bobbi realized that they lacked “identity.” They needed something that would make them a recognizable group and so Bobbi’s Kuspuks were born. Bobbi designed a simple style representative of Alaskan kuspuks in general, rather than following traditional designs of a particular village or area. She also made each generous enough to slip over a winter coat so that members could wear them during outdoor winter events, so sizes run a bit large. Soon ladies were inquiring about acquiring a kuspuk of their own. Designer Lewis suddenly had a business: The Quilted Loon. Today her kuspuks are found exclusively at the Matsu Senior Services Gift Shop. The shop boasts the largest collection of kuspuks in Alaska, most of which are Lewis’ creations.

Bobbi’s kuspuks are available in several styles. Her “Originals” are a pull-over-the-head variety and feature sweeping full front pockets. Traditionally this style was developed to provide storage for gathering long grasses, flowers and herbs. Lewis’ adult style is a bit more modern, sporting a full-length front zip. This makes dawning and removing the kuspuk much more convenient. It also allows the wearer to leave the kuspuk open giving it a more vested tunic appearance. Both are available in three lengths: above the knee, at the knee, and mid-thigh. Traditionally, the longer skirted kuspuks were worn when berry picking. The skirt created a breeze as the wearer moved, driving away gnats and mosquitos. Lewis also created the “city kuspuk.” This hoodless garment pulls over the head (preserving the expansive front pocket of the original kuspuk), has a short ruffled skirt and ends mid hip. It’s a favorite of nurses, as it’s great for holding stethoscopes. Lewis has also created parkas, essentially kuspuks without the traditional skirt. These are more versatile while still retaining the traditional Alaskan kuspuk look. Both kuspuks and parkas are also available lined for outdoor wear.

Lewis also makes men’s dancing parkas, children’s kuspuks, and even doll kuspuks (fit American girl dolls). Custom orders are available as well.

In her spare time, Bobbi crafts amazing wall hangings and quilts. A large centennial wall hanging quilt was produced by Alaskan quilters during the Palin administration. Lewis is proud to have contributed to the project.

Kuspuks, parkas, wall hangings and quilts are all available at the Matsu Senior Services Gift Shop. Located at 1132 South Chugach Street in Palmer, across from Palmer Junior Middle School, the gift shop is open to both seniors and the public, Monday through Friday, from 10 am to 2 pm.