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Ancestors of Science: Inupiat Clothing and Arctic Winter Survival

Images courtesy of NOAA.

Inhabiting the Arctic Circle for 4000 years, craftswomen of the Inupiat culture have developed specialized clothing to allow them to survive the glacial winters. While modern textiles are now available, many of the traditional clothes are still used, which stands as a testament to their value and to the expertise of the Inupiat (also known as Iñupiaq) ancestors who created them.

Inuit people in various forms of traditional dress

Inupiat winter apparel worn for spending extended time outside ( i.e., for hunting or traveling) consisted of two layers of fur for both the upper body and the lower body: outer and inner parkas for the upper body, and outer and inner trousers for the lower. Caribou furs were commonly used, the animal's hollow "guard" hairs (coarse hairs comprising the top layer of fur) forming an insulating layer to conserve body heat. The fur was turned toward the body in the inner layer and away from the body for the outer layer. This technique created an insulating pocket of warm air between the clothing and the body. They also made outer garments from seal and whale intestine, taking advantage of the guts' waterproof properties. Skins of fish and birds were also used.

Winter clothing for men and women was similar; only the outer parka differed. The woman's outer parka ( amauti) was adapted to carry infants and young children in a pouch on the back. Unlike the man's parka ( qulittaq), the amauti was made with thinner fur to make movement easier and also had a larger hood.

An Inuit woman fishing in traditional dress

In the Arctic during winter months, moisture freezes almost instantly, so keeping clothes dry was essential to preventing frostbite (see box). Several layers of footwear and mittens were worn, but footwear was important in another way for hunters whose success was thought to depend on the respect the hunter demonstrated for the hunted animal. When hunting on land, overshoes (in addition to boots) were made of caribou skin, but when hunting on ice for seal, a hunter would wear a special waterproof shoe over his boots made with a bearded sealskin sole and a ringed sealskin vamp (part of the shoe covering the instep). The waterproof quality of the seal skin overshoes prevented water from freezing the hunter's feet.

Preventing Frostbite

Sealskin was shaved and a special "waterproof stitch" was used to make sealskin boots waterproof. Waterproof seams were made by stitching halfway through the skin using a needle with a smaller diameter than the thread to ensure the thread would fill the hole left by the needle. Seal sinew was preferred for thread because it expands when wet to fill the hole.

A "snowbeater," a device made by cutting a groove in the hollowed antler of a caribou, was used to remove snow and ice from clothing, preventing frostbite. Before entering a house, it was used to prevent clothing from becoming wet from melting snow.

Beyond freezing and frostbite, snow blindness--a temporary but painful loss of sight caused by unprotected exposure to sunlight reflected from the snow--was also a problem. Snow goggles prevented the ailment. This mask-like covering was made of wood, leather, bone, antlers, or ivory and contained narrow slits. The inside was sometimes darkened with soot. Because the slits limited the wearer's range of vision, it reduced harmful light and some types also improved the vision of the wearer, like glasses.