Warm Feet in the Arctic

by Solveig Gardner Servian

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

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 of kamiks:

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!

Mukluks 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 events.

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.

References
Asen Balikci (1970) The Netsilik Eskimo, New York, NY: Natural History Press.

Byron Fish (1971) Eskimo Boy Today, Anchorage, AK: Alaska Northwest Publishing Co.
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

 

 

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