One of the critical skills that enabled pre-contact Inuit to survive in a harsh environment was the women’s ability to make warm clothing. The women had to clean the caribou or seal skins and then sew them into clothing every fall for each member of the family. There would be two sets of caribou clothing per person, one with the fur facing in, the other with the fur facing out. The woman’s crescent-shaped knife, the ulu, was used for cutting, while sinew from the caribou was transformed into waterproof thread for both winter caribou clothing and summer/fall sealskin outfits. Needles were made from bird or fish bones or slices of ivory. Both women and men carried a sewing kit in a bag hung around their necks for emergency repairs when travelling. The skill involved in creating clothing from raw animal pelts, let alone the intricate designs often sewn into the clothing (frequently under very harsh light and climate conditions), pay witness to the artistic abilities of Inuit seamstresses. Survival of a family depended in large part on the woman’s ability to produce warm clothing and to pass on her skills to her daughters.
Nick Newbery taught in several communities in Nunavut from 1976-2005. He would like to acknowledge the assistance he received for this article from Bert Rose, northern educator and long-time resident of Nunavut. The photos in this article are from Nick’s Arctic photo collection that can be found at www.newberyphotoarchives.ca and should be viewed from a historical perspective.