Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Arctic Landscape - Canada

Bird skins from a variety of different species were used throughout the circumpolar region to create parkas, slippers, hats and bags. Though they are not very strong and resistant to wear, bird skins are light, warm and naturally waterproof. Historically, the Canadian Inuit, particularly those from the Belcher Islands, used skins from the eider duck to create cozy and comfortable clothing and footwear. This cozy pair of slippers comes from Sanikiluaq. Made of soft eider duck skins, this pair is one of several amazing Inuit artifacts featured in our exhibit, Art and Innovation: Arctic Footwear from the Bata Shoe Museum Collection
This pair of eider duck slippers is warm and super lightweight. (Photo: Suzanne Petersen © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
It has been suggested that the use of eider duck skins on the Belcher Islands dates to the late nineteenth century. During this time, there was a series of particularly severe winter storms which covered lichens with a layer of ice. Unable to break through this icy layer, the caribou starved which left the Inuit with no fur to make their clothing. Inuit seamstresses ingeniously turned to eider ducks and began using their skins as an alternative.  
This stocking and slipper are made from eider duck skins. (Photo: Suzanne Petersen © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
Underneath their contour feathers, eider ducks have a soft and fluffy layer of down. Though this down provides insulation, it is also quite thick and makes bird skin clothing bulky. The strongest and warmest bird skins are often the least flexible, so different parts of the bird, and sometimes several different species altogether, are combined to make a garment.
Minah Mannuk tries on an eider overboot made by Silatik Meeko. Sanikiluaq, Belcher Islands, 1989.  (Photo: Jill Oakes © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
Adult male eiders have the toughest and thickest skins, so they were often used for hunter’s clothing. These skins could also be used on women’s coats across the upper chest and the back, as these parts of a parka experience lots of wear and tear, and need to be made of strong skins. Female eider skins were used for hoods, sleeve cuffs, and the underarm section of men’s and women’s clothing, because their suppleness allows for freedom of movement. Skins from juvenile birds are sometimes reserved for children’s clothing, because they were soft and flexible. The wing pockets of an eider have no quilled feathers, and are only made of soft down, so these pieces were usually kept aside to patch holes in other garments.

Sam Willie and Minah Iqacuk wearing eider skin parkas. Sanikiluaq, Belcher Islands, 1989.  (Photo: Jill Oakes © Bata Shoe Museum, 2016)
Adult eiders were also used to create incredibly light and soft slippers as one eider was the perfect size for each foot. Warm and cozy stockings were also created which could be layered with boots of other material for extra warmth. Different types of eider ducks, and different parts of the each skin, offer their own unique material advantages. These skins are strategically used by the Inuit when creating clothing and footwear.

Recently, the eider down industry in Sanikiluaq, Belcher Islands has seen a revival. This Inuit community produces eider down commercially, as it continues to be used to create warm winter clothing across the country.


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