The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing

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Introduction M983.184 ME966X.125.2 ME983X.51.1-2 M2000.28.1.1-2 ME965.194.1-2 ME983X.69.1-4 ME931.5.2.1-2 ME930.19
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Central Arctic
Inuit: Kivalliq Inuit (Qaernermiut)
1910-1915, 20th century
Caribou fur, sinew
14 x 21 cm
Gift of Mr. Christian Leden
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Mittens (1)
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Seamstresses in the Arctic were very familiar with the different properties of animal skins and when and how to use them. These mittens are made of thick caribou hide, and are based on a pattern common to all Inuit groups. There is no seam at the base of the thumb and the direction of the fur on the palm is toward the body to improve the grip. Warm mittens were, and still are, absolutely essential to surviving Arctic winters.

Keys to History

In winter Inuit men can wear two sets of short caribou mitts, but usually one layer is considered adequate and less clumsy. Caribou leg skin is preferred for winter mitts since it is long lasting. For tasks in warm weather and wet conditions, sealskin mitts are worn. Long bearskin mitts are favoured when working with snow, especially when building an iglu or when icing sled runners in springtime because, as with sealskin, the hair does not shed when damp.

A three-piece pattern for mitts is found all over the Arctic, usually with a fourth piece to make a strip at the wrist, although in Labrador and Siberia one- and two-piece patterns are known. Among finds of frozen skin clothing, a child's mitten from the Thule culture (about 1000-1600 CE) was discovered in 1985 at an archaeological site on Devon Island, Nunavut. Studies have revealed that it is made up of the three-piece pattern using stitches and seams that correspond to those used by contemporary Inuit seamstresses.

  • What

    These short mitts made from caribou harvested in late autumn have the traditional three-piece pattern. The half-palm is dark brown, with the fur flow running toward the wrist, thus improving the grip on harpoons, rifles and dog traces. The cream-coloured fur on the back of the mitt flows downward so that snow can easily be brushed away.

  • Where

    The mitts were collected at Igluligaarjuk (Chesterfield Inlet), Nunavut, the home of the Kivalliq Inuit (Caribou Inuit). Their territories extend from north of Igluligaarjuk, south to the treeline that at the coast reaches the Manitoba border, and from Hudson Bay in the east to Ennadai Lake and Dubawnt Lake and River in the west.

  • When

    The style of these mitts suggests that they date to the early 20th century - a time when the Kivalliq Inuit lived mainly in the interior, depending on caribou, musk-oxen and fish. In the 1950s the Canadian government encouraged the Kivalliq Inuit to move to the coast and live in settlements, and these became permanent hamlets.

  • Who

    The Kivalliq Inuit are made up of several independent groups, each with its own particularities in clothing. The Qaernermiut (Dwellers of the Flat Land) inhabited the region north of Igluligaarjuk where the mitts were collected.