Traditional sewing and Inuit clothing

Reclaiming Our Sinews

Many of our Elders know how to prepare caribou hides and sew traditional clothing. In this program, young people develop the skills so valuable to their parents and grandparents, skills which are the essence of Inuit culture. They learn to make caribou mitts, boots (kamiit) and more, depending on the supply of caribou hides and their skills.

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

Caribou were an important food for the Caribou Inuit, and remain so today. Caribou were also highly valued for their hides. Caribou skin was 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 the hair changes with the seasons, and skins for different purposes were obtained at specific times. Processing skins was a precise skill. Skins were not chemically tanned, but just worked to softness. Inuit clothing was well-adapted to the climate and the activities being pursued, and was different for men, women, and children. Caribou skin clothing required constant special care.

The skills involved in constructing clothing of caribou skin are complex and take a long time to perfect. Even the simplest tasks require highly developed skills 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, laid out the pieces needed on a hide, drawing the shapes with a sharp bit of bone. The pieces were cut out with a crescent-shaped woman’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 saved. This was scraped and dried, and could be 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. You can imagine how deeply the women appreciated the coming of steel needles to the trading posts!

The lore of traditional Inuit clothing is a topic in itself, and for the present beyond the scope of this site. For more information, visit:

Different types of clothing

In the past, a person had about two outfits of caribou skin. Each winter outfit had two layers. The hair side faced inwards in one layer; this was worn next to the body. No underwear was worn. During most of the winter, a second outer layer was worn. This 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 of the back of the caribou’s head, sometimes with the ears left left on for decorations. A split between the legs allowed the child to eliminate without removing the garment.

A mother carried her baby in a specially constructed parka with a spacious hood and a sort of pouch on the back. This is 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 made large so that a woman could draw her arms out of the sleeves to move the baby around inside the garment.

Due to movement of the arms against the body, caribou clothing usually wore out in the course of a year. A new outfit was needed each year by 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 clothing manufacture or care. It was hard physical work.

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 easy to work. Later, in September and October, the hair is thicker, and those skins are valued for the outer parka (qulittaq) and trousers. Early winter skins were used for bedding, some footwear, mitts, and in the old days, for diapers. Mid-winter skins could be used to line a sled, or under the sleeping skins in a snow house. Spring or early summer skins are not usually saved. At this time, 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 were intended for clothing use, caribou were skinned in a certain way. The men knew how their wives wanted this done. Most of the membranes and fat were removed in the skinning process, leaving the hide ready for further preparation.

In the Inuit culture, caribou skins traditionally are not chemically tanned or smoked. In the past, people lacked the chemicals and the fuel to smoke or process skins. They were simply scraped and “worked”. Women usually did the skin scraping and sewing, but men would occasionally help with the scraping. Here’s how it’s done….

Bloodstains are removed by stamping the skin in the snow, or by putting that section in cold water and then using an antler scraper or squeezing it to remove the water.

Then, using an ulu or metal-bladed scraper, you scrape any remaining fat or membranes off the inside of the fresh skin, then lay the skin out (hair side down) in the sun to dry, or stake it with wooden pegs about 10 cm off the ground so the air can circulate. Skins could be prepared with the hair on, or the hair might be shaved off with an ulu. Or, the skin could be soaked until the hair starts to “slip”. Then the hair is scraped off, and processing continues.

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 of a musk ox or large caribou was 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 fibers, 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 was responsible for clothing care in the old days. Everything had to be dried as quickly as possible and worked to resoften the leather. Places that had become stiff often required chewing to soften them. This was especially true of kamiit (boots). Even up until 20 years ago, it was not unusual to see an elder with her teeth worn off to the gum line, from chewing leather to soften it.

Today, many people have caribou skin clothing, but are no longer required to depend on it in summer. To make clothing last longer now, people wear it only in winter and try to make sure it does not get wet.