The Inuit Adaptation to the Arctic

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The Arctic is a region on earth where the sun will remain above the horizon for at least a day in the summer and for one full day in winter it will remain below the horizon. It is the polar region located at the most northern part of the earth. It consists of the Arctic Ocean, parts of Russia, Canada, Alaska, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland. The region is covered by ice and treeless permafrost. In July- the warmest month of the year- temperatures average at below 10 degrees C (500 F). Temperatures may go to as low as negative 600 Celsius which due to the harsh winds will have a real feel of negative 1000.

As opposed to the Antarctic, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land; that is North America, Asia and Europe (Kobalenco 12). The night during winter ranges from 24 hours, at the arctic to an astonishing 6 months at the pole. Geologic evidence that suggests the earliest inhabitants of The Arctic were from present day Russia does exist. This evidence is in the line of human remains and stone tools found in the valley of Russia’s Yana River.

The Arctic- the worst human environment on earth- is currently occupied by the Inuit communities. They occupy the North West territories, Labrador and Quebec. They also occupy the area above the tree line in Alaska where they are known as Yupik and Inupiat and also Russia. In Europe, the term Eskimos has been used to refer to the Inuit people, however they find this term offensive (Stern 16). This paper will shed light on how the climate influences how the Inuit people dress, the means by which the Inuit adapt to the environment in which they live through their clothing and how they make them.

Making clothes for the people of the Arctic people has always been a complicated affair. Balancing between keeping warm and over-heating the body is an art that they have perfected. While it is important to keep warm, the clothing has to keep the body warm enough and minimize sweating, which can lead to frozen clothing. The clothes also have to have the right insulation properties to avoid frostbite, which can be fatal.

In former times, all the clothes the people of Inuit wore were made from skins and hides. Both men and women wore boots and trousers made from skin. The only difference between men’s and women’s clothes was the cut and choice of skin. When the European entered Greenland in the early 18th century, they introduced clothing fabrics as goods for trade. They also introduced glass beads, which were incorporated to the people’s dress code. Several factors have influenced the way the Inuit people dress over the years, including changing weather patterns, the items they trade with the outside world, and their cloth-making skills.

Climate Influence

The climate has had a massive influence on the Inuit dress code. Due to heavy winds their clothes need to go over their faces to prevent them from breathing in cold air. The material for covering the face has to differ from the thick and heavy material they use to make their clothes. Their clothes also need to absorb sweat. If sweat were to freeze on their skin, it may cause frostbite. The harsh winds also whip the snow making it seem like it always snows. Because of this some modern day Inuit people have been seen to wear goggles as they move around.

Living in The Arctic for this long has modified the Inuit people’s tolerance for the cold. Since their clothes are made purely from animal skin, they are not cleaned a lot. This is due to the fact that they take longer to dry due to the moist air and also longer to get dirty due to scarcity of soil and dust. (Dwayer et al 66) It is also not practical to make as many clothes out of animal skin as one would make from ordinary fabric. Only animals with thick fur and feathers live in the arctic. It is from these animals and birds that the Inuit people obtain the skin to make clothing.

The Clothes and Adaptation

Making of their clothes takes skill and patience, as animal skin needs to be softened and dried before it is fashioned into clothing or tool handles or even beddings. Anthropologists have however noted a change in the Inuit wardrobe that they attribute to climate change. Climate change has affected not so much what they wear as when they wear it. For example, some Inuit women owned two sets of parkas. One parka was for winter and the other for the warmer seasons. They have noted that the heavier parka is now worn less than it used to.

Studies have shown that if the average person would wear the same type and amount of clothing as the Inuit people do, they would develop health complications due to climate. Some have developed pneumonia due to the moist cold air. It is important to note that the Inuit are cultured people. Their culture will therefore dictate many of their day to day activities and practices. This paper will however not go into the culture of the Inuit people of the arctic but will highlight the implications of culture on the way the Inuit people dress.

Most clothing of the Inuit people is homemade. They made their clothing out of caribou skin; skins of animals killed for food. With time, modifications are made to the design of the clothing though the basic design and material has remained unchanged for years. For centuries, caribou has been an important food to the Inui people. Their skin was also of immense value. It was used for clothing, roofing material during the spring, making summer tents, to cover their beds and to make a kind of cushion that is used on sleds. Only the thickness of the hair of the caribou would change with the seasons.

Skins for different purposes were known by their specific names. Tanning of caribou skin was a skill and not a commercial event as it is in the case of cow skin in other areas. Inuit clothing would differ among men, women and children as all were involved in different daily activities. Inuit men were mostly hunters. Their clothing therefore had to reflect people involved in a lot of physical activity but were also exposed to winds and frost the rest of the time. Inuit men had two kinds of clothes. One set which they used during hunting and another set which they wore while stalking their prey. For this reason, Inuit men have the most clothes.

During the summer, seal skin replaces caribou fur in the making of garments as seals are kept warm by the fat in their adipose tissue (blubber) and not so much by fur and hair as in the case of wolves, caribou and polar bears. (Oakes et al 12). The seal is- upon killing-dragged into the warm kitchen to thaw before the skin is opened up and cut away from the blubber.

The inside of the skin is then scrapped out using an Ulu to remove the remaining fat or membranes. It is then laid out to dry with the fur facing out. The skin may be prepared with or without the hair. The hair may be removed using an Ulu or the skin could be soaked until the hair starts to slip off.

Alternating washing and scrapping follows to dislodge any parasites within the skin then it is hung to drain before it is put out in the sun to dry. If deemed necessary, the skin can be folded up again while damp to soften it up further. It may be pounded with a rock or hammer, kneaded with the feet or worked back and forth to make the fibers straight thus creating a soft leather skin. Cuts and tears are repaired at this point.

In the Inuit culture, preparation of some skin is done by the women. It is not uncommon to find Inuit hunters cut off only a small piece of the animal to feed on while on the hunt and leave the rest intact so the women can have their share of the work. Few women wear seal skin parkas today due to the immense workload associated with making them. The skin still requires an additional five to six days of chewing before it is ready to be cut up and sewn.

When dry, skin is cut up and sewn together using animal sinew. The sinew shrinks when wet making the stitches firm and compact. Recently, commercial threads and trimmings have been made available, some are even decorative. The sewing is such that it uses stitches that catch the skin other that making holes in it. This is because most Inuit clothing is bound to be exposed to wetness, either from the air or from puddles on the ground during the summer. Skin from the tough bearded seal is used to make the sole of the boot while the upper part is made from the skin of the ringed seal. Bleaching is sometimes done in the sun but purely for appearance purposes. The process may differ slightly depending on what animal the skin is being obtained from.

Wolf skin is also used in the making of some clothing mostly in trimming the hoods of parkas more so those of women. In cities, wolves are a protected species since they are rare. However, in the Arctic, such laws could be proven to be null and void due to the fact that wolves are in abundance in the arctic. The wolf is killed and it is skinned and the skin is buried in the snow till the summer. While in the ground, the skin will absorb moisture and soften up. This is important so it does not break apart while drying in the sun. It is then uncovered, the pelt is stretched, and nailed to a board till it dries. This process then goes on as in preparation of seal skin the only difference being, it is the men that prepare it unlike all the other types of skins. (King et al 11).

Fewer wolves are hunted for their skins as compared to caribou, polar bears and seals. This is because the wolf skin has fewer uses than other animal skins. Caribou are the most hunted animals in the Arctic.Polar bears were also not spared when it came to both eating and making of clothing. The bear is killed and then skinned immediately. The meat is separated from the pelt. Scraping the pelt is done by the woman of the house just like in seal skin, who spreads it on the kitchen floor while scraping it. The claws are left attached to the skin even during cleaning.

The skin is washed in the family’s bathtub before it is dragged around in the snow behind a sled or snowmobile to polish it and to remove bloodstains from the fur. It is then spread on a board and treated with salt and flour to whiten it. Now, polar bears are mostly killed for monetary purposes. Once the Inuit realized that the skin was of great value to Americans, they prefer to keep the meat and sell the skin for money, which they can use to acquire ready-made clothing from stores (Oakes et al 9).

There aren’t many birds in the arctic during the winter. Those that come there in the summer to breed are an important source of food. Snow geese and ducks are shot for food. Due to lack of trees in the arctic, birds make nests on the ground. This means that their eggs are accessible to predators, mainly the Inuit people. This however only takes place in the early part of the summer thus allowing ample time for the birds to nest. Apart from food, another important use of these birds is the stuffing of clothing. Feathers are known for their insulating properties.

When the bird has been hunted, the feathers are removed in boiling water then put out to dry in the sun. After they dry, they can be treated to remove any smells. The feathers are used as padding for not only pieces of clothing but also pillows beddings and sleds. Some materials used to make Inuit clothing had to be brought in from outside The Arctic. Such items include elastic straps and laces. Inuit trousers have suspenders made of elastic. The female packing parkas also have straps that can be pulled to ease the burden on the shoulders as the women carried their children.

Different skins are used to make different pieces of clothing. The heavy outer jacket worn by the Inuit people is the most basic and essential item in the Inuit wardrobe. It is called the parka. The jacket is lined with fur and has a hood for the purpose of protecting the face from both wind and freezing temperatures. It is common to find frozen breath encrusting the hood. Wolverine fur is used to trim the hood as it repels moisture from breath. Wolf skin can also be used for this purpose though mostly in children’s clothing.

The jacket which was made of either seal or caribou skin was originally invented by the Caribou Inuit who needed clothing to protect them from chilly winds and wetness while they hunted or went kayaking. The jacket has a fringe, which keeps the wind out. During physical activity, modern day Inuit hunters have the option of replacing the parka with a store bought padded jacket to avoid sweat, which has been known to cause frostbite, reduction of in insulation and even death and overheating. The store bought jackets are lighter and less warm than the homemade parkas. Men’s parkas are the warmest parkas out there. As previously stated, while the hunters are not hunting, they are exposed to the harsh climate of The Arctic. (Alexander et al 19).

As women mostly remain at home while the men hunt, few Inuit women bother making parkas out of caribou skin for themselves. Those that do, only wear theirs in the spring other than in the winter. Most women’s parkas are worn without the heavy inner lining found in the parka of men, mostly hunters. Such a lining may cause overheating and excess sweating if used indoors. For women with babies, their parkas are made with a space at the back and a large hood that will cover both mother and child. This parka is known as the packing parka as it is used to “pack” or carry around the child. The packing parka has straps made of finger woven wool. To reduce the weight on the shoulders as one carried the child, a strap on the front can be pulled down. There is also a strap around the waist to stop the baby from slipping down off the mother’s back.

When parkas are made from other fabrics bought from stores, the outside of the parka is made wind proof. Even fabrics like Gooer-tex are available in stores. The lining of such parkas is made of duffle made of wool, which the Inuit people may choose to remove when it is warm. A second jacket is worn beneath the parka. It is the equivalent of a shirt, a really warm shirt. The Atigi, as it is known, is worn with the fur facing inwards. With the fur facing inwards, the Atigi soaks up any sweat on the body.

The Atigi can now be replaced by either a lining of duffle or a padded jacket, which is commercially made. The main reason of perhaps having two jackets would lie in the scientific principle that suggests two light jackets would be warmer than one large and thicker jacket. This is because the two jackets trap between them air that functions to add to the insulating property of the two jackets.

Short knee length trousers are also worn, especially by young boys. Men may choose to wear a pair of trousers that they tuck into their boots. The trousers are also made from caribou skin and have elastic braces that resemble suspenders that hold them up. With time, came variety. Now, the trousers are being replaced with store bought pants. Some hunters from this community have been seen to wear padded trousers from army surplus stores. These pants are lighter and offer less weight and just as much warmth as the former. Hunters are now faster and more agile than in the past. (Stern 112).

Their boots are also made of caribou skin. There are two types of boots. The first type can be likened to a pair of leggings and are worn with the fur facing the skin. This type of boot is designed to soak up sweat and therefore the Inuit people need not wear socks. The second pair has its fur facing out. The fur stretches from the foot to the knee. This pair is also made of caribou skin except for the foot, which is made from store bought sheepskin. The wool in the foot faces inwards and a separate piece of sheepskin is sewn to the sole of the boot. This provides additional insulation and traction.

A waterproof boot or an overshoe made of seal skin is worn especially by the Inuit hunters. This acts as protection while they are on the hunt. Seal skin is waterproof and impenetrable by small sticks and thorns. Commercially made boots are now available. They are made from both sheepskin and caribou fur. They mimic the design of the waterproof boots made traditionally by the Inuit people themselves. Modern boots have ties at the top made of wool thatserve to keep snow out of the boot. Rubber waders are also a common sight in the modern day Arctic.

Thick mittens with long cuffs are used to protect their hands. The long cuffs are such that they overlap the parka sleeves. The mittens are made of sheepskin and sometimes of husky fur. The mittens sometimes cause inconveniences while grasping especially if they are very thick. They are therefore made of sheepskin, as it is thinner than caribou and just as warm. Now commercial mittens are available that are also made of sheepskin but are made to be thinner and more comfortable than the homemade mittens. (Stern et al. 212),

During the spring, children are dressed in caribou skin jackets with hoods that are trimmed with wolf fur to keep the wind out of their cheeks and their ears while they are outside. Children are rarely required to be out in the cold and therefore not much caution is taken while making their clothing. The clothes only have to be warm but lack the technologies in those of adults. As Inuit culture slowly fades away, the new Inuit generation is turning from homemade clothing to dressing in ready-made, store bought clothing. As the weather warms up, they peel off layers of clothing of the ready-made clothes to best suit them the new climate.

Tools are also essential to discuss as they are used in hunting, which is the process by which the Inuit people would obtain the skin and also in processing the skin and sewing it into clothes. The Inuit developed tools that best suited their hunting lifestyle as well as for making clothes.

For whale hunting, Umiaks are used. They are boats specifically made for this function. They are able to fit up to 30 hunters as well as tow the massive whale to shore. It is made of animal skin and a wood or whale bone frame. Whale fat was used for waterproofing of a lot of things including clothing. It was used on boots to waterproof along the stitches where two pieces of skin came together.

Harpoons are spears meant for hunting. The harpoon is barbed at the head thus allowing the spear to remain impaled in the animal when it is speared. Stalking is no longer necessary as the harpoons have been replaced by guns. The hunter now aims for the animals head shoots it and allows blood from the head to drain away. Bones are used in the making of knife handles, pins and projectile points which are used for cutting the skin and making stitches. (Dwayer et al 98). One interesting fact about Inuit tools is that some are actually made from the bones and the skin of the animals with which they are used to impale, kill and skin.


Living in the harshest human environment in the world has ideally not been easy for the Inuit people of the Arctic. They have been forced to undertake measures to ensure their survival in this climate. The climate also dictates what they wear and how they make it. The paper also explains the implication of climate change on the Inuit people’s dressing code. All the animals they consume offer them both meat and skin.

The Inuit clothing is designed to keep as much heat inside as possible. The clothing should also be as light as possible to ensure sleek movement of the Inuit people who still practice hunting, and also allow easy movement through the ice. Availability of store bought pieces of clothing has somewhat eased the burden of the Inuit, and a large population now no longer makes their own clothes.

However, the Inuit are a cultured people and some prefer to make their own clothing as a means of keeping said culture alive. Inuit tools have also been discussed. These tools are important in hunting and making of clothing. Hunting is also discussed, as it is by hunting that the Inuit people are able to obtain the skin they need to make clothing. Ones an animal is hunted, the skin is processed and turned into clothing or sold and the money used for food and clothing.

Global warming slowly influences the way the Inuit people dress and what they wear. Melting ice and rising levels of the sea influence the temperature, and the people have to adjust. Rising temperatures, for example, means that the Inuit people have to wear less dense clothes to avoid sweating. Weather patterns also affects the hunting success of in the remote areas where people still make clothes from skin and hides, since some animals will not survive when temperatures change too much.

The Inuit were a more or less self-sufficient people especially when it came to making of clothing. This was before the availability of store bought items of clothing and items used to make clothing. The only materials they purchase from outside the Arctic being sheepskin used in boots and mittens and elastic bands for trouser and packing parkas. Store-bought clothing is really expensive.

The reasons for the high cost of freight include frozen oceans, making it impossible for the region to be accessed though water transport means. Also, due to extreme weathers, flying can be a dangerous and difficult affair, and only few can access the region. With the minimal means of transport to the place, the cost of transporting goods from other parts of the world is extremely high.

Few aspects of the Inuit culture have fallen prey to modern times, and some have long been long forgotten. In the early years, clothes were strictly made from skins and hides, and the population depended on the men’s hunting skills to store enough material for clothes. With the arrival of the European in the early 18th century, things changed and a sizeable element of their culture was eroded. The Europeans they introduced beds and clothing fabrics for trading, which were incorporated to the people’s dress code.

From this paper, it is safe to conclude that Inuit clothing will not change further for a long time to come. Only one factor has attempted to change Inuit clothing and that is the fact that fur is very valuable in America. This has made many Inuit communities, especially those in Alaska to opt to sell their animal skin for money than make hand-made clothes. Inuit clothing is up to date used as a means to study the effects of climate change. The implications of said climate change on clothing are studied and that tells a lot about how the climate is changing and at what rate.

Works Cited

Alexander, Bryan and Cherry Alexander. Inuit. New York: Powerkids Press, 2010.

Dwayer, Helen and Burgan Michael. Inuit History and Culture. New York: Gareth Stevens Pub, 2012.

King, J C, et al. Arctic Clothing of North America, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.

Kobalenco, Jerry. Arctic Eden: Journeys Throughout the Changing High Arctic. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010.

Stern, Pamela R. Historical Dictionary of the Inuit. Scarecrow Press, 2004.

Oakes, Jill E. Copper and Caribou Inuit Skin Clothing Production. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1991.