How to keep warm Inuit-style


The climate in the far north of Canada is cold. The average temperature in Iqaluit is -10 degrees Celsius. It may get up to 12 degrees Celsius during the three months of summer, but winter is down in the -30s. How did they keep warm before central heating and down-filled jackets?

A basic principle to keeping warm is that air is not a good conductor of heat. This is because the molecules in air are far apart and cannot as easily transfer to one another. So, igloos were warm because snow is full of air and once the air inside the igloo is warmed up by fire, it does not easily transfer to the outside.

The same principle works with clothing. Their clothing was made to fit loosely so that body heat would stay inside, and of animal skin with hair which captured air. But it was very important to not sweat, as this would lead to frozen clothing that no longer held heat.

Clothing in the Arctic was made from various animals such as caribou, seal, waterfowl, polar bear, and even the intestines of sea mammals. We will just look at the process of making a living caribou into some nice warm clothes.

First, the caribou had to hunted and killed. Hunting caribou was usually done from August to October as their coats were nice and thick at this time. To make clothing for a family of five, one would need about thirty caribou.

Caribou from

The skin of the caribou had to be scraped clean, dried, stretched, rescraped, then chewed to make it soft and pliable. Hours went into the preparation of each skin.

The threads to sew it with also came from the caribou. The dorsal tendons from along the vertebrae were best for sewing. They had to be scraped clean, then washed and partly dried. They needed to be kept cool and not allowed to dry out completely. The tendons were split into sinews using the teeth or thumbnail.

Each person needed a parka with a hood, a pair of trousers, and mitts to wear on the outside, as well as a second pair of trousers and footwear underneath. Boots were often made of sealskin because it was waterproof. Small children were carried around in the hood of their mother’s parka until they were too big, and then they wore an all-in-one combination suit.

The caribou skin was cut with a razor-sharp ulu, being careful to cut just the skin and not the hair. Then it was sewed together carefully with a bone needle. Fringes were often added to the bottom of the parka to keep the wind out.

Enfants Inuits 1925

By Captain George E. Mack [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Activity: The making of clothing was grown-up work, but the availability of sinew or thongs from sealskin also provided entertainment. Stories could be told with a piece of string as it was made into pictures of animals and birds and kayaks or sledges. Here is a string game called “Cat’s Cradle” which you can learn.

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