Arctic embroidery

14/07/2020

The First People of Alaska used very specific techniques of embroidery to decorate their clothes. The Anchorage museum (Smithsonian Institute) has a beautiful collections of ancient pieces – many are decorated with beads. Let us have a look…

Before the White man arrived, the First People of the North used skins from a variety of animals to make their clothes. The North is a huge place with many regions, each one inventing specific techniques to soften the skins. For copyrights reason I had to focus on one place, the biggest, named Athabascan. With a little bit about Sugpiaq, a more Southern region.

Alaska Studies Center – https://alaska.si.edu/cultures.asp

Tunics
This tunic is called ch’adhah ik, or Skin Dress. It is 114 cm long and was created in the region called Athabascan on the Yukon river.

It was created from reindeer skin, thinly tanned and slightly smocked. The decoration is made of « beads » from quills of porcupine (k’uh). The long quills are first cleaned, then arranged by size. To soften them, they are put in water and one by one the women flatten them with their fingers. The flat quills are then couched with a thread on the skin to be decorated. The quills can be dyed (see our videos here).

This tunic was offered by Bernard Ross, a trapper, to the Hudson’s Bay Company in the years 1850s. Beads were still very rare in this region and the clothes were decorated with dyed porcupine quills. This tunic shows some blue and red beads on the fringe among flattened quills. Tunics with this particular shape (no hood, long fringes, decor on the chest) were worn by both men and women in the years 1850-60s. « Back then, people liked to wear beautiful clothes. They would look after them with great care, protecting them in reindeer skin bags. » (Trimble Gilbert, 2004). Lavrentiy Zagoskin, a Russian explorer, wrote in his journal in 1844: « The people of Athabascan are passionate about fine ornements and bright colors. »

National Museum of Natural History collection, E002030

Man’s tunic, Innoko River, Athabascan, Alaska. Length 128 cm. Bought in 1882
Made from smocked moose skin, this tunic has an ornement of particularly small beads. The first beads imported by the Huston’s Bay Company were very small (size 14 or even 16). Later, bigger beads came to replace both the smaller beads and the porcupine quills.
Around 1877-81 Edward W. Nelson, a collector, took this photo of a man wearing this tunic, before buying it from him. Note that the borders of the collar and the sleeves are made with cotton – which was then a luxury in this region.

National Museum of Natural History collection, E064278
National Museum of the American Indian collection, 151481_000

Complete outfit with tunic, hood, boots, gloves and a knife sheath
This beautiful outfit was worn during the summer ceremonies. It was created from very soft reindeer skin. Men’s tunics only went to the knees, with the borders forming a triangle in the front. Women had longer tunics, with a straight border. This outfit might have been worn by a young woman during the time of her exclusion (puberty). This example shows when women started to use beads instead of the traditional quills. The motifs are still the same though.

Mittens
Mittens (gets’) were decorated in the same way – with porcupine quills first, then beads from the 1860s. This pair is 32 cm long and decorated with quills. The leather strap linking them is also covered by couched quills, sewn together. The mittens are made from reindeer skin and are from the Copper River region. They are rather simple, made for summer. They were collected in the 1870s when beads decoration were preferred to quills.

National Museum of the American Indian collection, 161647_000
National Museum of Natural History collection, E072842

Mittens made from moose skin (37 cm) specially conceived for the harsh cold of the northern parts of Athabascan: « The fur on the wrist is very useful to warm the face when the wind blows.  » (Trimble Gilbert, 2004). The insides were doubled with rabbit fur or moose hair. The borders are rather large so they can fit on top of the parka sleeves.
The decoration is made with metallic and glass beads, forming a floral motif. Those mittens were bought in 1928. By that time, women had completely abandoned the quills tradition.

Shoes (mocassin, or kwaiitrygh ch’ok)
« Christmas (Little Day) and New Year (Big Day) were coming – each woman was busy sewing mocassins decorated with beads for her children, her husband and herself. What a wonderful collection of shoes there were for the dances! The tradition was that every member of your family received a new pair of mocassin, embroidered with beads, whether you had 12 children or just one. » (Eunice Carney, 1997)

A pair of mocassins (26 cm long’) with pointy ends, a leather tie and black woolen flap. The decor is entirely made of glass beads, with some metallic beads in the center of each flower. The motifs were first drawn on the skin, then the beads were stitched using nylon thread, dental floss or sinew. Those shoes were worn during ceremonies, danses, festivals or at the birth of a child. Mocassins were usually made from moose or reindeer skin.

National Museum of the American Indian collection, 059549_000
National Museum of the American Indian collection, 059549_000

These mocassins were bought in 1895, on the South coast, but they have square ends, indicating a more inland origin. Links between tribes were constant, some tribe adopting the traditions, songs or motifs of another tribe. The inside of the mocassins is made of black wool, suggesting more frequent commercial exchanges: « These people liked long ceremonies and took a long time to get to know each other (Where are you from? Who are you? What is your tribe? etc. ) before any business could be done. » Clarence Jackson, 2005.
These shoes were used during ceremonial danses and the whole decor is made of glass beads.

Clothes were not the only thing that held a special embroidered decor. Here we have a sewing bag and a dog blanket.

This sewing bag (Kakiwik) comes from the Sugpiaq region (south of Athabascan). It is 39 cm long and was bought in 1882.

« There were small pockets to keep the sinew threads. There were also ivory needles, threads, and whales sinews. Women used to carry these bags everywhere, like a handbag. My mother, my grand mother always had their sewing bags with them. » Lucille Antowock Davis, 1997.

Each owner used the Kakiwik to show their abilities. This bag has a flap painted in black, with seal skin on the border. The decor is made of appliqués of dyed oesophagus skin, reindeer hair and ranks of small woolen hoops. It could be rolled on and closed with a leather strap. With the ivory needle you cou also find needles made with bird bones (which are hallow) or even copper needle.

National Museum of Natural History collection, E072497

Dog blanket (tgjj ts’at)
During the 19th century, new materials began to reach these regions: wool, cotton and glass beads were now available. Men started to make heavily decorated blankets for their sled dogs. On one side, they stitched small seed beads, and on the other side, appliqués of cotton braids. The dogs would also carry « horns » with small bells, ribbons and fox tails. This rich ornement were put on the dogs only at a short distance from the rendez-vous point. When the owner of such a colorful team would arrive at a festival, wedding or New Year feast, he would have made a very beautiful entrance.

On this blanket there are also sleigh bells and an abundance of wool and cotton, which might means the owner was an important chief or a very rich man. Here we find the same type of motifs made of glass and metallic beads seen on the mocassins.

National Museum of the American Indian collection, 161665_000

A very special Thanks to Aron Crowell (director of the Arctic Studies Center) and Down Biddison (Assistant at the Arctic Studies Center) for their help – without them I could not have access to this rare photos. 
All the photos are protected by copyrights and cannot be copied without a written request to the Smithsonian Institute. 

Main source: Alaska Native Collection

The content of this site is free and is not damaged by un-welcomed publicity. I do this work with love and passion but it requires a lot of time. I would like to continue to offer a wider market to our artists, to show how embroidery is a wonderful art. But I do need a little bit of help. If you feel like it, you can participate with a little donation to help me continue. I will be so grateful! Thank you! Claire

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