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Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada

Traditional Clothing

From the past to the present, Inuit have worn caribou and sealskin clothing. These durable and easily available materials have allowed Inuit to survive in a climate that defeated most others.

Traditional sealskin kamiks.
Traditional sealskin kamiks.

Caribou have always been an important food source for the Caribou Inuit, and remain so today. Caribou are also highly valued for their hides. Caribou skin is used for clothing, for summer tents, for roofs on snow houses in spring, to cover the sleeping bench and to form a cushion or base on the qamutik (sled). The thickness of caribou hair changes with the seasons, and skins needed for different purposes are obtained at specific times. Caribou skin is a good insulator, as caribou hair is hollow and traps in heat against the body. These hollow hairs also make caribou skin clothing more buoyant in water.

Processing skins is a precise skill. Skins are not chemically tanned, but are worked to softness. Inuit clothing is well adapted to the climate and the activities necessary for survival, and different for men, women and children. Caribou skin clothing requires constant special care.

Inuit clothing is well- adapted to the climate and the activities necessary for survival.

Constructing caribou skin clothing is a complex process that takes a long time to perfect. Even the simplest tasks require highly developed expertise and the correct tools. In the past, no one used measuring tapes — a woman compared the size of the person for whom she was making a garment with the size of her husband, and using her hands and fingers she laid out the pieces needed on a hide, drawing the shapes with a sharp bit of bone. The pieces were then cut out with a crescent-shaped women’s knife (ulu) or a smaller knife with a wooden handle bent at an angle.

Thread was made of sinew from the backstrap of the caribou. The meat was cut away, and the membrane was saved to be scraped, dried and split into thread.

Prior to the coming of the traders, holes for stitching were sometimes made with a fine-pointed awl, and the sinew thread was pushed through. Needles were also used; these were made of sharp slivers of bone, or beaten out of native copper in areas where this metal was available. Inuit women deeply appreciated the coming of steel needles to the trading posts, and the new ease of sewing animal skins the needles created.

Different Types of Clothing

In the past, a person would typically have two outfits of caribou skin. Each winter outfit had two layers. The hair side faced inwards in one layer and was worn next to the body. No underwear was worn. The outer layer was made with the hair side facing out. For a man, the inner layer upper part is called an attigi, and the outer parka is called a qulittaq.

Small children wore “jumpsuits” of caribou skin, called an atayuq. These were made in a single piece so that the jacket did not ride up and expose the child’s skin. The hood was made from the back of the caribou’s head, and sometimes the ears were left on for decoration. A split between the legs allowed the child to eliminate without removing the garment. The mother carried her baby in a specially constructed parka with a spacious hood and a sort of pouch on the back called an amauti. The baby nestled against its mother’s bare back, and a belt around her waist held the child up in the pouch. The mother sensed her baby’s needs and was able to quickly reach in and remove it when it needed to eliminate. The shoulders of the amauti were purposely made large so that the mother could draw her arms out of the sleeves to move her baby around inside the garment.

Due to movement of the arms against the body, caribou clothing usually became worn out in the course of a year. A new outfit was needed each year for every member of the family. The old clothing was kept and worn while the other set was being repaired or softened. Since most of this work was done by the women of the family, they were constantly involved in the difficult, physically demanding labour of clothing manufacture and care.

Anastazia Cockney in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region wearing a fur-trimmed parka.
Anastazia Cockney in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region wearing a fur-trimmed parka.

Different Seasons, Different Functions

The dark fall skins of the caribou, taken in August, are best for clothing construction. The hair is short, and the skins are easy to work. The hair is thicker in September and October, and the skins are valued for the outer parka and trousers. Early winter skins are used for bedding, footwear, mitts and diapers. Mid-winter skins can be used to line a sled, or placed under the sleeping skins in a snow house. Spring or early summer skins are not usually saved, as the hair is falling out and there are many warble fly holes in the hide. These parasites migrate to the backs of the caribou by late spring and cut breathing holes in the skin, exiting through these holes to pupate on the ground.

Processing Caribou Skins

When the skins are intended for clothing use, caribou are skinned in a certain way. The men know how their wives want this done. Most of the membranes and fat are removed in the skinning process, leaving the hide ready for further preparation. Skins are traditionally not chemically tanned or smoked, since chemicals and the fuel for smoking were not readily available. They are simply scraped and “worked” by the women, though men will occasionally help. Bloodstains are removed by stamping the skin in the snow, or by putting the bloody section in cold water and using a scraper made of antler or squeezing it to remove the water.

Then, using an ulu or metal-bladed scraper, any remaining fat or membrane is scraped off the inside of the skin. The skin is laid out hair side down in the sun to dry, or staked out with wooden pegs about 10 cm off the ground to allow air circulation. Skins can be prepared with the hair on, or the hair might be taken off with an ulu. Alternatively, the skin can be soaked until the hair starts to “slip,” allowing the hair to be scraped off more easily.

If necessary, to soften the hide further, the skin is dampened and folded up for a few hours, then spread out and scraped again, using a dull scraper of bone (the scapula, or shoulder blade, of a musk ox or large caribou is sometimes used), metal or sometimes stone. The skin is worked back and forth, bent on itself again and again. It might be folded up and kneaded by the feet, or even pounded with a hammer on a rock. All this stretches the fibres, creating a soft leather. At this time, any cuts in the skin are repaired.

Care of skin clothing

Skins processed without chemicals will absorb moisture and can rot. Snow in skin clothing brought inside will cause dampness and the leather will stiffen, so all snow must be beaten off before any clothing is brought into warm areas.

The woman of the house is responsible for clothing care. Everything has to be dried as quickly as possible and worked to re-soften the leather. Areas that become stiff often require chewing to soften them. This was especially true of kamiit (boots). Even today, it is not unusual to see an Elder with her teeth worn down to the gum line, from chewing leather to soften it.

Annie Aningmiuq near Iqaluit.
Annie Aningmiuq near Iqaluit.

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