The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing

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Eastern Arctic
Inuit: Kalaallit
1900-1930, 20th century
Sealskin or walrus skin, cotton cloth, cotton thread, sinew, natural dyes
5.4 x 88.2 cm
Gift of Mrs. LeMans
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Sampler (16)
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Keys to History

In the 15th century women in Europe embroidered different kinds of stitches on cloth to keep as samples, hence the word "sampler." Young girls would be taught these stitches by sewing them on samplers as part of their education. Kalaallit girls learned to sew the difficult and complicated skin mosaic, or avittat, by practicing on a narrow strip of hide, usually seal or walrus. According to Dr. Cunera Buijs, curator, Rijksmuseet, Leiden, Netherlands, the strip was their kind of sampler, a way to instruct, record and store the art. Non-Inuit traders and explorers called these strips "belts" and collected them as souvenirs because of their artistic beauty. The Inuit never actually used these belts as part of their traditional costume.

In this sampler the avittat is of the geometric kind. The Kalaallit seamstress used a small knife to cut tiny pieces of dyed skin and compose an appliquéd mosaic. The resulting geometric patterns, with their variations of colours, shapes and combinations of strips, are infinite.

  • What

    The sampler is made of seal or walrus skin (freeze-dried) and has a cotton-fibre backing sewn with black thread. The applied skin mosaic is in many colours: green, red, gold, blue, purple, pink and ochre. Plant life has supplied dyes for the Kalaallit who obtain, for example, tones of red from the alder tree or washed-up spruce trees. Lichen, moss, berries and pond algae also produce colours.

  • Where

    Samplers and clothing with skin mosaic patterns have been described by ethnographers, artists and other researchers. Skin mosaic decoration is found in East and West Kalaallit Nunaat - it is often possible to learn from the pattern the locale of origin.

  • When

    This sampler is estimated to have been made in about 1900 to 1930. However, in the second half of the 20th century, samplers developed into actual belts that were in demand for sale to tourists and non-Inuit visitors who brought them home as souvenirs.

  • Who

    Mosaic patterns were handed down within the family and are unique for the garment and for the age and sex of the wearer. Here, a Kalaallit seamstress and her family are identified as the originators of the designs.