During my visit to Alaska in 1976 I was privileged to see at first
hand traditional skin-sewing techniques.
At the time I was staying in Nome in the home of Ellie, a lovely lady
originally from St Lawrence Island who let out rooms during the summer
months. I was there during November and the only visitor at the time.
Ellie was a warm-hearted person, anxious to make sure that I was comfortable,
warm and well fed. I was made to feel at home, invited to use the kitchen
freely and to sit with the family during the evenings.
Appreciating my interest in Alaskan culture, Ellie invited me to look
at the mukluks (a western arctic term for their traditional boots) she
was making for a local trapper. He had supplied the beautiful caribou
skin for the leg sections and a walrus hide for the soles.
Simply taking the man's foot and leg measurements and without template
or paper pattern, Ellie cut out the pieces from the pelt. To decorate
the top cuff of the boot she cut out a variety of animal shapes from
a short-haired white pelt - rabbit, I believe, but I'm not really sure.
These were sewn individually on to the cuff with needle and thread.
How she had the strength in her fingers to force the needle through
two layers of skin, I'm not quite sure.
The mukluks would be worn with thick socks inside, possibly two or
three pairs. My American friends working in Alaska quickly adapted to
mukluks and wouldn't think of wearing anything else, saying that nothing
kept their feet as warm. Apparently the soles are quite slippery on
the packed snow but people develop a way of walking whereby they slide
their feet rather than taking steps. I rarely saw anyone fall over -
only myself in my European mountain boots, much to everyone's amusement.
Ellie had also made a pair of the most beautiful shoes for her tiny
grandson. They were absolutely perfect, fine enough to grace a Bond
Street shop window.
On a visit to Greenland a couple of years later, this time in the summer,
I saw two women dressed in their traditional Sunday best, their pristine
white kamiks (a central and eastern Canadian arctic term for skin boots)
intricately decorated with embroidery of multi-coloured threads. Quite
different from what I'd seen in Alaska.
Sealskin was used for waterproof summer boots. The hair would have
been carefully scraped off with an ulu, the traditional round-bladed
women's knife, and then the blubber from the underside of the skin.
The leather would become very hard and needed chewing to soften it.
Sewing would once have be done with bone needles and sinew, which had
the advantage of swelling when wet, thereby becoming watertight. Steel
needles and waxed or polyester thread is used today.
The French explorer Paul-Emile Victor wrote colourfully of the smell
And their smell! I will always remember it, since
I can still remember it today: yet at that very time indefinable,
for it was different from anything that, as far as smells go, I had
smelt before. A smell of grease, a little sour, a little sweet (can
one say that a smell is sweet?), acrid too, a smell that to the nose
must be like the taste of nuts to the palate. Not easy to describe,
as you can tell. I would learn later that the odour was characteristic
of all [those who] wore sealskin. It came from the grease that was
rubbed into the skins to make them waterproof.
Well, odour is something we haven't escaped from with our modern shoes,
as is evidenced by the number of foot products on the market!
or kamiks were originally essential, serviceable clothing, a common
necessity rather than creative artwork to be treasured. Individual communities
gradually developed their own particular patterns and styles. Regional
designs spread through gifts or trade exchanges, or by people moving
to other communities. There are now hundreds of different shapes, sizes
and techniques, all a source of pride at community gatherings or special
Even today there is probably not a fabric that is as effective as skin
boots at keeping one's feet warm; the thick fur of the caribou is an
ideal insulation. Indeed, traditional boots are still favoured when
travelling long distances.
For the sake of Inuit culture, let us hope that the exquisite art of
skin sewing will continue to be passed on from generation to generation.
Asen Balikci (1970) The Netsilik Eskimo, New York, NY: Natural
Byron Fish (1971) Eskimo Boy Today, Anchorage, AK: Alaska Northwest
Jill Oakes and Rick Riewe (1996) Our Boots: An Inuit Women's Art,
New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.
Paul-Emile Victor (1975) La Vie des Eskimos, Paris: Fernand Nathan
(extract translated by S.G. Servian).
© S. G. Servian 2003