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Inuit Clothing and its Construction

By Betty Issenman and Catherine Rankin

When anthropologists and archeologists refer to the Inuit, they mean all the people who speak the languages of the Eskaleutian family. These 136,000 people [1997] live above the tree-line in four of the countries that surround the North Pole: Greenland, Canada, the United States in Alaska, and the Soviet Union on the Bering Sea. Political boundaries in these regions are relatively recent.

Similarities in clothing

Inuit clothing was remarkably similar in construction throughout the approximately 6,000 kilometres of the circumpolar region. It consisted of a coat, trousers, mitts and boots. Caribou, seal and marine birds were the main sources of material for the lightweight clothing which was sewn with sinew.

Garments were tailored according to role. Women's coats had an amaut (baby pouch) and two apron flaps, front and back. Men's coats had roomy shoulders to facilitate hunting. They did not have apron-like flaps, although in some regions they might have a back flap or be cut longer at the back.

In winter, coat and trousers were worn in two layers. The fur of the inner layer was next to the body and the fur of the outer layer faced outwards. Double-layered clothing was ideal for regulating body temperature and humidity. In spring and summer, a single layer of clothing was worn, with the same tailoring principles in effect.

The hunt

Due to climatic changes (a major cooling period from A.D. 1600-1850), the Inuit dual hunting pattern evolved. Winters were spent on the coastal ice in pursuit of seals, which were harpooned or speared as they surfaced at their breathing holes. In spring, seals basking on surface ice were stalked and harpooned with a toggling harpoon. Summers and early autumn were spent inland in search of caribou and fresh-water fish.

Raw materials

For centuries, the Inuit have inhabited a barren and harsh region of the world exploiting all of nature to survive.

The seal, in particular the ringed seal, provided skins for clothing and, until recently, for trade. Sealskin was lightweight and water-repellent, making it an ideal material for summer clothing. The Inuit wore sealskin boots and mitts throughout the year, while sealskin jackets and trousers were worn in one layer in spring and summer. In certain regions, skins of birds, fish and other animals were also used for clothing.

Dried grasses and mosses were placed under the foot inside the stocking to absorb perspiration and in the bottom of the amaut (baby pouch) as a diaper. The Inuit of the High Arctic used driftwood or wood obtained in trade with southern neighbours to make objects of domestic use and in the construction of weapons, boats and sleds.

Nothing was wasted. Rain jackets were made of seal or walrus intestine. The teeth and claws of animals became amulets and decorative objects placed on clothing. Walrus and narwhal tusks were carved into pendants and utilitarian objects. Muskox horn was used for ladles, snow goggles and blubber pounders.

Skin preparation

The busiest time for women was the autumn, following the caribou hunt, when they prepared the skins and sewed the double layers of winter clothing. Before skins could be made into clothing, they first had to be dried, scraped and softened. It took 300 hours of work to treat the 27 caribou skins needed to make clothes for a family of five persons. Skin preparation had to be done quickly to ensure that the clothing would be ready for winter wear and so that the sewing could be done before the long winter darkness set in.

Sewing tools

Traditional sewing equipment consisted of an ulu, needle and awl, thimble and thimble-guard, and a needlecase. The sewing kit also contained sinew, tendon not yet made into sinew and pieces of fur for repair. The tools were stored in a pouch of loonskin or fur, in a basket or in a skin bag.

Footwear

In the cold, dry winter months, the hunter wore caribou or sealskin footwear in as many as five layers: stockings, short socks, boots and short overboots. In the wet spring and summer, a dehaired sealskin boot was used.

Personal adornment

Men and women wore earrings, necklaces and bracelets made of ivory, copper, soft stone, shells and the small bones of mammals and fish. Women wore hair ornaments, in the form of pendants, ivory plaques, hairsticks and beadwork. Headbands were made of attractively pieced skin and were sometimes hung with caribou teeth or beads.

Labrets were worn in the western area of the Arctic. At the age of puberty, young men had a small slit or slits cut in the lower lip to receive stone or bone plugs called labrets. The shape of the labret varied according to the age of the wearer and the style of the region.

Clothing accessories

Inuit clothing accessories were functional, decorative and symbolic. The most versatile clothing accessory in the Canadian Arctic was the strap or belt, a simple, narrow thong of dehaired skin.

Pendants of bone or ivory were hung at the bottom of jackets in Arctic Quebec. They formed a decorative fringe that weighted down the edge and prevented the skin from curling. In most areas, fringes of narrow strips of caribou skin were applied to the bottom edges of the jacket.

Amulets were attached to jackets throughout the Arctic. The Inuit believed that such charms protected them from forces outside their control and aided them in the hunt.

 

Source: "Ivalu. Traditions of Inuit Clothing" Exhibition Catalogue,
Montreal, McCord Museum, 1988.

REFERENCES

Brody, Hugh. Living Arctic: Hunters of the Canadian North. Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 1987.

Driscoll, Bernadette. "Pretending to be Caribou." The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and Calgary, Glenbow Museum: 1987.

Issenman, Betty. "Inuit Skin Clothing: Construction and Motifs. " Études/Inuit/Studies 9 (2), 1985: 101-116.

Issenman, Betty. "Sources for the Study of Inuit Clothing." Unpublished monograph, Montreal, 1984.

Issenman, Betty Kobayashi. Sinews of Survival. The Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing. Vancouver: UBC, 1997.

Oakes, Jill. Factors Influencing Kamiik Production in Arctic Bay. Canadian Ethnology Service Paper No. 107, Mercury Series, Ottawa, National Museums of Canada, 1987.

Oakes, Jill. Inuit Annuraagit: Our Clothes. Exhibition Catalogue, Eskimo Point: Inuit Silattunrsarvingat, 1987; Inuktitut 66, () 1987.

Oakes, Jill. "Northern Charms: Amulets on Clothing. " Inuktitut 66, () 1987.

Oakes, Jill. "Keeping Warm Wasn't the Only Consideration: The Arctic Environment, the Winds of Fashion, and New Influences Have Shaped the Evolution of Inuit Clothing Styles." Caribou News 7 (3), October 1987.

Oakes, Jill. "History, Construction, and Symbolism in Inuit Beading." Canadian Home Economics Journal, Spring 1988.

Oakes, Jill. "Inuit Clothing and Technology. " Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies Annual Report. Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Canada), 1988.

Oakes, Jill. "Inuit Clothing, a Living Heritage. " Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies Annual Report. Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Canada), 1988.

Oakes, Jill. "Regional Variations in Skin Clothing." Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies Conference Proceedings. Ottawa: Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Canada), 1988.

Oakes, Jill and S. Karetak. "Arctic Jewels: The Traditional Inuit Amauti." Northwest Explorer 6 (2), 1987.

Summary 

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