Where the northern Arctic Ocean meets the warm Gulf Stream, the climate is wet with mild winters and cool summers. Over the centuries, people here have successfully adapted to the unpredictable forces of nature. In a cold climate, clothes are literally a question of life or death.
In the Arctic, leather preparation and sewing were essential survival skills. If your clothes break or tear in the icy cold, you have to be able to repair them.
The sewing needle and the ulu, a knife used for skinning, are important tools. The ulu has many areas of application. With it, you can butcher meat and cut thin strips of leather for decoration.
Greenland long exported furs, leather and ivory. Imports included sewing needles, knives, glass beads and cotton fabric. The beads were used to make the elaborate bead collar, Nuilarmiut. The collar has evolved from a tiny decorative embellishment to a wide bead collar sweeping over the shoulders. It can weigh up to 1.5 kilos.
The bead collar is a part of the Greenlandic formal wear for women, and is used during celebrations such as weddings and confirmations. Glass beads have been traded in Greenland since the 18th century, but wide pearl collars are not believed to have come into use until around the turn of the 20th century. Earlier, pearls made out of teeth or stones were used.
Round bead collar in the form of a net of differently colored glass beads, held together by a fastener at each top edge. From Greenland. On loan from Swedish National Museums of World Culture. Photo: Museum of Ethnography
A harsh climate demands warm, functional clothes. They have to be tailored to protect against the cold and damp, but also against insects. Clothes are decorative, too, signalling status and belonging. All these functions were served by the traditional Sami costume.
The kolt, is a sort of long jacket or dress that could be made of wadmal, broadcloth, leather or fur. They prepared the hides themselves. Reindeer hide, bearskin and small game pelts are proof that they used the resources on hand
In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Sami stopped wearing the traditional costume. Often it was because they felt it was out of fashion, but a more important reason was that it signalled that one was a Sami. This might mean discrimination and put one at risk.
Today the costume or parts of it are enjoying a renaissance. This can be regarded as an expression of increased self confidence, pride and a will to express Sami identity. The costume mixes traditional and modern materials. It is nothing new that the costume is influenced by contemporary fashion. This has always been the case.
This kolt has been tanned so thin that it weighs just 600 grams, the weight of a light down jacket, specially produced from high-tech modern materials. Sweden, Lapland, Jokkmokk.
Photo: Nordiska museet
Amulets can be worn for good hunting and protection against accidents. According to Inuit mythology, an animal’s qualities can be transferred to a human with the help of magic.
This parka of reindeer skin belonged to a boy named Norquat from Netsilingmiut, Canada, in the early 20th century. Affixed to the jacket are amulets for good hunting and protection against accidents:
The hood is bordered with ermine fur to make the child a fast runner.
Farther down are fox teeth, which stand for successful hunting.
On the chest are a pair of seal bones, proof he is a good seal hunter.
The gull bill on the right arm means “good salmon fisherman”.
At the tip of the hood hang claws and a bit of facial skin from a seal for good seal hunting.
The leather human figure on the left shoulder contains human hair, which was believed to ward off sickness and ensure long life.
On the right shoulder sits a similar figure with wolf’s hair, which is supposed to be beneficial when reindeer have to be driven towards water.
Some of the people of the Arctic have considered the bear a sacred animal. The bear was a symbol of supernatural power, strength, wisdom, courage and rebirth. The hunt and the uses made of the bear’s body were surrounded by rites and ceremonies
The bear’s teeth could be used as amulets that gave the wearer strength and protection. Amulets were worn around the neck, strung on a thread made of sinew. If it was wrapped in woollen thread, it was believed to provide extra protection against disease.
Amulet made of a bear's tooth. NM.0222579. Amulet from Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. Belonged to Johan Turi (1854–1936), a Sami hunter and fisherman. He was the author of the first book on Sami life written in Sami by a Sami: Muitalus sámiid birra – The Story of the Sami (1910). Photo: Nordiska museet.
In the circumpolar area, large birds like the raven and the black-throated loon are surrounded by a certain mystique. There are many narratives in which the raven represents wisdom, but is also a portent of misfortune or death. The beautifully portrayed black-throated loon, too, has often considered ominous for its melancholy, lamenting call. In Icelandic, the word for loon, “lómr”, means cry or shriek. Loon skin was previously often used for hunting bags.
In the Faroe Islands, working at sea was a fixture of daily life. To stay dry during the long days at sea, one needed to dress in layers. Closest to the body would be a broadcloth shirt, outside a knit sweater, leather vest, leather trousers, jacket, hat, woollen socks, a scarf and on one’s hands, double-knit mittens.
The natural properties of wool make knit sweaters work well as rain gear. The wax in wool (lanolin) repels water. Wool can also absorb up to 30 percent of its own weight in water without feeling wet.
Knowledge of how to make waterproof, breathable garments has existed for a very long time in the Arctic. Clothes made from the intestine skin of a seal functions the same way as modern breathable synthetics do – it is completely watertight but lets sweat pass through.
The material is feather-light, durable, and wind and watertight. In the living animal, the intestine absorbs liquid from one direction only, through its walls. The liquid is transported to the end of the intestine and then out of the body.
When the weather was coldest in the Arctic, people dressed in warm furs. The polar bear's skin is one of the warmest material to wear, especially for children.
Greenlandic clothes are often decorated with leather embroidery and beads. It was equally important to look good, not only for one another, but out of respect for the animals one hunted and killed.
Fur clothing was tailored to make use of the animal’s skin with a minimum of waste. When making a pair of polar bear trousers, for example, it was important to make sure the fur pointed downwards, towards the feet, so water and snow would run off the garment more easily.
Amaat of sealskin, parkas for woman with hood. Decorated with leather embroidery, marten fur and glass beads. An important functional feature of a woman’s amaat is the specially designed hood. In it, the woman can carry a baby or even a small child. To prevent anybody from falling, the blue bands are tied around the woman’s waist. The amaat shown on this photo is from Greenland, and aquired by Nordiska museet in 1879. On loan from the Swedish National Museums of World Culture. Photo: Museum of Ethnography