If you were an eighteenth century Alutiiq person, your wardrobe would contain a set of garments stitched from bird, fish and animal skins including sea otter, seal, caribou, and ground squirrel. For daily activities, you would wear a long, loose-fitting, hoodless robe and a soft undergarment stitched from the skin of a baby seal. Your outdoor clothing would include a waterproof rain jacket made of bear or sea mammal intestine, some socks woven from beach grass, a pair of knee length boots, and perhaps some bear skin mittens. And, if you were fortunate, you would own an elaborately decorated parka for special occasions.
All of these garments were expertly crafted. Women spent countless hours working by the light of fires and oil lamps to turn natural materials into warm, durable, beautifully decorated clothing. Alutiiq garments were more than attire. They were pieces of artwork that expressed the identity of their owner and talismans that demonstrated the close spiritual connections between people and animals.
Embroidered design on an historic Alutiiq parka, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Preparing to Sew
Accumulating materials was the first step in manufacturing clothing. Alutiiq garments often contained a variety of hides harvested over many hunts. After Russian contact, people were restricted to wearing garments made of materials with little value to the fur trade, particularly bird skins. The typical puffin parka – an every day garment – had about 60 skins, and a cormorant parka for special events had as many as 150 throat skins. Other garments combined the pelts of several animals. Alaska Peninsula Alutiiqs wore parkas fashioned from squirrel, caribou, mink, otter, and ermine pelts.
Alutiiq people tanned mammal skins with urine collected in large wooden tubs stationed outside their houses. Alutiiq women soaked hides in these tubs relying on the ammonia in the urine to break down any remaining fat. Urine also removed hair from hides. Women soaked hides in urine and then rolled and left them in a warm place to sit for several
days until the hair could be easily scraped away.
Bird skins, a popular material for parkas, were tanned with fish eggs. After scraping the skins to remove fat and tissue, Alutiiqs covered them with fish roe and left them to sit. After several days, they scraped the hides clean and kneaded them until they were soft and dry.
In addition to processing hides, seamstresses also made thread. First, they twisted sinew– bits of animal tendon – into strips. Then, with their fingernails, they separated the strips into thin fibers, moistened them, rolled them between their palms, and wrapped the resulting thread around a wooden bobbin.
A Seamstress ’s Tools
With a thimble made from a thick piece of hide, a sharply pointed bone awl and a slender needle, sewing began. First, a seamstress used her awl to pierce a hole in her hide. Then she used a slender bird bone or ivory needle to pull the thread through the hole. Some needles had tiny eyes. Others had a small knob for attaching the thread. Still others were unmodified. A sewer simply wrapped strands of sinew around these needles. Seamstresses stored their tools in beautifully decorated bags or kakiwik. Men carried similar bags, with tools for repairing boats and clothing.
Learn More: Caribou Park Exhibit