Self-taught fish skin seamstress keeps traditional art alive

Aug 30, 2018

Marlene Nielsen taught herself to sew fish skin. Now she teaches students across the state in an effort to keep the traditional art alive.

Marlene Nielsen at her Fishtival bazaar booth
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG

Salmon skin is a traditional sewing material for Alaska Native people in many parts of the state. When dried and preserved, it can be crafted into bags, boots and other clothing items. However, few artists still practice the craft. Marlene Nielsen from Kokhanok is among those who do. She taught herself several years ago because no one she knew worked with fish skin. Now she teaches classes around the Alaska.

KDLG’s Avery Lill spoke with her at the Fishtival bazaar in Naknek this summer, where she was selling her fish skin crafts.

"All the way around the basket itself it has rainbow trout, like it's actually swimming in a circle with the tails pushing," Neilsen describes her fish leather basket. "With the fins along the top I wanted to make it look like there's a bunch of fish along the stream, and fins were all finning along in the water."
Credit Avery Lill/KDLG