The traditional skin clothing of the Inuit is broadly consistent in both design and material, despite the wide distribution of the various Inuit peoples, a group of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland. This is due to the common need for protection against the extreme weather of the polar regions and the limited range of materials suitable for the purpose. Production of warm, durable clothing was an essential survival skill for the Inuit, which was traditionally passed down from adult women to girls. The creation and use of skin clothing had important spiritual implications for the Inuit.
The most basic traditional outfit consisted of a coat (parka), pants, mittens, inner footwear, and outer boots made of animal hide and fur. The most common sources of hide were caribou, seals and seabirds. Clothing style varied according to gender roles and seasonal needs, as well as by the specific dress customs of each tribe or group. As a result of socialization and trade, Inuit groups incorporated clothing designs and styles from other Indigenous Arctic peoples such as the Chukchi, Koryak, and Yupik peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East, non-Inuit North American Indigenous groups, and European and Russian traders. In the modern era, skin clothing is less common, but is still worn, often in combination with winter clothing of natural or synthetic fiber.
The vocabulary for describing individual garments in the Inuit languages is extensive, and the terms used in each of the numerous Inuit dialects often reflect specific local variations in construction. In her 1997 book , Inuit clothing expert wrote:
A few examples will indicate some of the complexities: 'Akuitoq: man's parka with a slit down the front, worn traditionally in the Keewatin and Baffin Island areas'; 'Atigainaq: teenage girl's parka from the Keewatin region'; 'Hurohirkhiut: boy's parka with slit down the front'; 'Qolitsaq: man's parka from Baffin Island' (Strickler and Alookee 1988, 175).
This article uses the Inuktitut terminology used by Kobayashi Issenman, unless otherwise noted.
|Garment name||Inuktitut syllabics||Description||Notes|
|Qulittuq||ᖁᓕᑦᑕᖅ||Closed hooded parka, fur facing out||Men's parka|
|Atigi||ᐊᑎᒋ||Closed hooded parka, fur facing in||Men's parka|
|Amauti||ᐊᒪᐅᑎ||Closed parka with pouch for infants||Women's parka|
|Qarliik||ᖃᕐᓖᒃ||Trousers||Double layered for men, single for women|
|Pualuuk||ᐳᐊᓘᒃ||Mitts||Unisex, double layered if necessary|
|Mirquliik||ᒥᕐᖁᓖᒃ||Stockings||Unisex, double layered|
|Tuqtuqutiq||ᑐᒃ-ᑐᖁᑎᒃ||Overshoes||Unisex, worn when needed|
Upper body garments
Traditional Inuit culture divided labor by gender, so men and women wore garments differently tailored to accommodate their distinct roles. The outer layer worn by men was called the qulittaq, and the inner layer was called the atigi. These garments had no front opening, and were donned by pulling them over the head. Men's coats had loose shoulders, which provided the arms with greater mobility when hunting. This also permitted a hunter to pull their arms out of the sleeves and into the coat against the body for warmth without taking the coat off. The closely fitted hood provided protection to the head without obstructing vision. The bottom hems of men's garments were cut straight. The hem of the outer coat would be left long in the back so the hunter could sit on the back flap and remain insulated from the snowy ground while watching an ice hole while seal hunting, or while waiting out an unexpected storm. A traditional parka had no pockets; articles were carried in bags or pouches. Some parkas had toggles called amakat-servik on which a pouch could be hung. Men's parkas sometimes had markings on the shoulders to visually emphasize the strength of their arms.
Parkas for women were called amauti and had large pouches called amaut for carrying infants. Numerous regional variations of the amauti exist, but for the most part, the hem of the amauti is left longer and cut into rounded apron-like flaps, which are called kiniq in the front and akuq in the back. The infant rests against the mother's bare back inside the pouch, and a belt called a qaksun-gauti is cinched around the mother's waist on the outside of the amauti, supporting the infant without restraining it. At rest, the infant usually sits upright with legs bent, although standing up inside the amaut is possible. The roomy garment can accommodate the child being moved to the front to breastfeed and eliminate urine and feces. Women's parkas sometimes had markings on the forearms as a visual reminder of their sewing skills.
Lower body garments
Both men and women wore the trousers called qarliik. During the winter, men typically wore two pairs of fur pants for lengthy hunting trips, while women only needed a single layer as they usually did not go outdoors for such long periods during winter. Qarliik were waist-high and held on loosely by a drawstring. The shape and length depended on the material being used, with caribou trousers having a bell shape to capture warm air rising from the boot, and seal or polar bear trousers being generally straight-legged. In some regions, particularly the Western Arctic, men, women, and children sometimes wore atartaq, leggings with attached feet similar to hose, although these are no longer common.
In the deepest part of winter, the traditional outfit could include up to five layers of leg and footwear. The first layer was a set of stockings called alirsiik, which had the fur facing inwards. The second was a pair of short socks called ilupirquk, and third was another set of stockings, called pinirait; both of which had outward-facing fur. The fourth layer was the boots, called kamiik or mukluks. These could be covered with the tuqtuqutiq, a kind of short, thick-soled overshoe that provided additional insulation to the feet. During the wet season of summer, waterproof boots were worn instead of insulating fur boots. These were usually made of sealskin with the fur removed. Strips of dehaired seal skin were sewn to the soles to provide grip on ice.
Most upper garments included a built-in hood, but some groups like the Kalaallit of Greenland wore separate hats instead, like the Yupik peoples of Siberia. Many Canadian Inuit wear a cap beneath their hood for additional insulation during winter. During summer, when the weather is warmer and mosquitoes are in season, the hood is not used; instead, the cap is draped with a scarf which covers the neck and face to provide protection from insects.
Inuit mitts are called pualuuk, and are usually worn in a single layer. If necessary, two layers can be used, but this reduces dexterity. Most mitts are caribou skin, but sealskin is used for work in wet conditions, while bear is preferred for icing sled runners as it does not shed when damp. The surface of the palm can be made of skin with the fur removed to increase the grip. Sometimes a cord was attached to the mitts and worn across the shoulders, preventing them from being lost.
Children's clothing was similar in form and function to adult clothing, but typically made of softer materials like caribou fawn, fox skin, or rabbit. Once children were old enough to walk, they would wear a one-piece suit called an atajuq, similar in form to a modern blanket sleeper. This garment had attached feet and often mittens as well, and unlike an adult's parka, it opened at the front. Older children wore outfits with separate parkas and trousers like adults.
Amautis for female children had amaut, and they sometimes carried younger siblings in them to assist their mother. Clothing for girls changed at puberty. Amauti tails were made longer, and the hood and amaut were enlarged. Hairstlyes for pubescent girls also changed to indicate their new status.
The most common sources of hide for Inuit clothing are caribou and seals, with caribou being preferred for general use. Historically, seabirds were also an important source for clothing material, but use of seabird skins is now rare even in places where traditional clothing is still common. Less commonly used sources included wolverines, wolves, musk-oxen, bears, foxes, ground squirrels, and marmots. The use of these animals depended on location and season.
Regardless of the source, the Inuit traditionally used as much of the animal as possible. Tendons and other membranes were used to make tough, durable fibers, called sinew thread or ivalu, for sewing clothing together. Feathers were used for decoration. Rigid parts like bones, beaks, teeth, claws, and antlers were carved into tools, or decorative items. Intestine from seals and walruses was used to make waterproof jackets for rain. The soft material shed from antlers, known as velvet, was used for tying back hair.
Caribou and seal
The hide of the barren-ground caribou, an Arctic subspecies of caribou, was the most important source of material for clothing of all kinds, as it was readily available, versatile, and warm. Caribou fur grows in two layers, which trap air, which is then warmed up by body heat. The skin itself is thin and supple, making it light and flexible. Caribou sheds badly when exposed to moisture, so it is not suitable for wet weather.
The hide of Arctic seals is both lightweight and water repellant, making it ideal as single-layer clothing for the wet weather of summer. Year-round, it was used to make clothing for water-based activities like kayaking and fishing, as well as for boots and mittens. Seal hide is porous enough to allow sweat to evaporate, making it ideal for use as boots. Of the four Arctic seals, the ringed seal and the bearded seal are the most commonly used for skin clothing, as they have a large population and are widely distributed. Harbour seals have a wide distribution but lower population, so they are less commonly used. Clothing made from harp seals has been reported, but documentation is lacking.
Other animal sources
Like caribou fur, polar bear fur grows in dual layers, and is prized for its heat-trapping and water-resistant properties. The long guard hairs of dogs, wolves, and wolverines were preferred as trim for hoods and mittens. The fur of arctic foxes was sometimes also used for trim, and was suitable for hunting caps and the insides of socks. In some areas, women's clothing was made of fox hides, and it was used to keep the breasts warm during breastfeeding. Musk-ox hide was used for summer caps, as the long hairs kept mosquitoes away. It was also suitable as bedding. In modern times, wool made from musk-ox down is sold commercially. The skins of small animals like marmots and Arctic ground squirrels are used for upper garments and decorations.
The skin of cetaceans like beluga whales and narwhals was sometimes used for boot soles. Whale sinew, especially from the narwhal, was prized as thread for its length and strength. Tusks from narwhal and walrus provided ivory, which was used for sewing tools, clothing fasteners, and ornaments. In Alaska, fish skins were sometimes used for clothing and bags, but this is not well-documented in Canada.
The use of bird skins, including eider duck, auk, cormorant, guillemot, ptarmigan, loon, puffin, swan, and goose, has been documented by all Inuit groups. The skin, feet, and bones were used to make clothing of all kinds, as well as tools, containers, and decorations.
Construction and maintenance
Women were responsible for all stages of producing clothing, from preparation of skins to the sewing of garments. These skills were passed on from grandmothers and mothers to their daughters, beginning in childhood, and fully mastering them could take a woman into her mid-thirties. Preparation of new items occurred on a yearly cycle that typically began after the traditional hunting seasons. Caribou were hunted in the autumn from approximately August to October, and sea mammals like seals were hunted from December to May. The sewing period following hunting could last for up to four weeks. Production of clothing was a communal process undertaken by entire families gathered together.
Inuit seamstresses traditionally used tools handcrafted from caribou bones and antlers, including the needle, awl, thimble and thimble-guard, and a needlecase. When available, meteoric iron or copper was cold worked into blades by a process of hammering, folding, and filing. After contact with Western explorers, the Inuit began to make use of sheet tin, brass, non-meteoric iron, and even steel, obtained by trading or scrapping. They also adopted steel sewing needles, which were more durable than bone needles. European contact also brought scissors to the Inuit, but they were not widely adopted, as they do not cut furry hides as cleanly as sharp knives. Traditionally, Inuit seamstresses used ivalu, threads made from sinew. Modern seamstresses sometimes use thread made from linen, cotton, or synthetic fibers, although these materials are less waterproof compared to ivalu.
The first stage was the harvesting of the skin from the animal carcass after a successful hunt. Generally, the hunter would cut the skin in such a way that it could be removed in one piece. Skinning and butchering an adult caribou could take an experienced hunter up to an hour. While butchering of caribou was handled by men, butchering of seals was mostly handled by women.
After the skin was removed, the hides would be dried on frames, then laid on a board and scraped of fat and tissues with an ulu knife until soft and pliable. Most skins, including bird skins, were processed in roughly the same way, although processing oily skins like sealskin and sometimes polar bear skin required the additional step of degreasing the hide by washing it with soap or dragging it across gravel. The hide would be chewed, rubbed, wrung up, and even stamped on to soften it further for sewing. This process was repeated until the women judged the skin was ready. Badly processed clothing will become stiff or rot, so correct preparation of hides is essential. Traditional processing of hides was a time-consuming process. It could take up to 300 hours to prepare the caribou hides necessary for a five-member family to each have two sets of clothing.
When the hide was ready, the process of creating each piece could begin. The first step was measuring, a detailed process given that each garment was tailored for the wearer. No standardized sewing pattern was used, although older garments were sometimes used as models for new ones. Traditionally, measurement was done by eye and by hand alone, although some seamstresses now make bespoke paper patterns following a hand and eye measurement process. The skins were then marked for cutting, traditionally by biting or pinching, or an edged tool, although in modern times ink pens may be used. The direction of the fur flow is taken into account when marking the outline of the pieces. Most garments were sewn with fur flowing from top to bottom, but strips used for trim had a horizontal flow for added strength. Once marked, the pieces of each garment would be cut out using the ulu, taking care not to stretch the skin or damage the fur. Adjustments were made to the pattern during the cutting process as need dictated. The marking and cutting process for a single amauti could take an experienced seamstress an entire hour.
Once the seamstress was satisfied that each piece was the appropriate size and shape, the pieces were sewn together to make the complete garment. Four main stitches were used, from most to least common: the overcast stitch, the tuck or gathering stitch, the running stitch, and the waterproof stitch, a uniquely Inuit development. The overcast stitch was used for the seams of most items. The tuck or gathering stitch was used to join pieces of uneven size. The running stitch was used to attach facings or insert material of a contrasting color. Betty Kobayashi Issenman described the waterproof stitch, or ilujjiniq, as being "unequalled in the annals of needlework." Two lines of stitching made up one waterproof seam, which were mostly employed on boots and mitts. On the first line, the needle pierced partway through the first skin, but entirely through the second; this process was reversed on the second line, creating a seam in which the needle and thread never fully punctured both skins at the same time. Ivalu swells with moisture, filling the needle holes and making the seam waterproof.
Once created, Inuit skin clothing must be properly maintained, or it will become brittle, lose hair, or even rot. Warmth and moisture are the biggest risks, as they promote the growth of decay-inducing bacteria. If the garment is soiled with grease or blood, the stain must be rubbed with snow and beaten out quickly. Wearing clean clothing on a hunt was important, because it was considered a sign of respect for the spirits of the animals.
Historically, the Inuit used two main tools to keep their garments dry and cold. The tiluqtut, or snow beater, was a rigid implement made of bone, ivory, or wood. It was used to beat the snow and ice from clothing prior to entering the home. Once inside the home, the garments were laid over a drying rack near a heat source so they could be dried slowly. Garments were checked daily for damage and repaired immediately if any was discovered. Boots were chewed or rubbed across a boot softener to maintain durability and comfort. Although women were primarily responsible for sewing new garments, both men and women were taught to repair clothing and carried sewing kits while travelling for emergency repairs.
Inuit clothing expert Betty Kobayashi Issenman identified five key aspects common to all Inuit skin clothing, made necessary by the challenges particular to the polar environment.
Insulation and heat conservation
Clothing worn in the Arctic must be warm, especially in the permanent polar night during winter, when temperatures can drop below −40 °C (−40 °F) for weeks or even months. Inuit garments were designed to provide thermal insulation for the wearer in several ways. Caribou fur is an excellent insulating material: the hollow structure of caribou hairs helps trap warmth within individual hairs, and the air trapped between hairs also retains heat. Each garment was individually tailored to the wearer's body with complex tailoring techniques including darts, gussets, gathers, and pleats. Openings were minimized to prevent unwanted heat loss, but in the event of overheating, the hood could be loosed to allow heat to escape.
Traditional Inuit clothing was constructed to provide maximum warmth appropriate to the season. For the warmer weather of spring and summer, only a single layer of clothing was necessary. Both men and women wore two upper-body layers during the harsher temperatures of winter. The inner layer had fur on the inside against the skin for warmth, and the outer layer had fur facing outward.
Humidity and temperature control
Perspiration, no matter how slight, eventually leads to the accumulation of moisture in closed garments. Materials used for Inuit clothing had to allow for efficient management of the resulting moisture. Fibres like wool are not suitable, as they will absorb the moisture directly and hold it against the skin. If the temperature is too low, moisture will condense into frost, which can cause life-threatening heat loss unless the garment is removed. In contrast, fur does not absorb moisture, and when frost forms on it, it can be brushed away, since it is not directly absorbed into the individual hairs. Since the frost can be brushed away, the garment also does not need to be dried by an exterior heat source.
Long, uneven hair from wolves, dogs, or wolverines was used to trim each hood, collecting moisture from breath and allowing it to be brushed away after it crystallized. This fur ruff also reduces wind velocity on the face. Modern studies have shown the traditional Inuit fur ruff is the most efficient system for preventing heat transfer from the face. The individual fit of each garment also contributed to humidity control, as the careful tailoring allowed air to circulate between the body and the clothing, keeping the body dry.
Making garments waterproof was a major concern for Inuit peoples, especially during the wetter weather of summer. The skin of marine mammals like seals sheds water naturally, but is lightweight and breathable, making it extremely useful for this kind of clothing. Prior to the availability of artificial waterproof materials, seal or walrus intestine was commonly used to make raincoats and other wet-weather gear. Skillful sewing using sinews allowed the creation of waterproof seams, particularly useful for footwear.
Garments were tailored to be practical and to allow the wearer to perform their work efficiently. As the Inuit peoples traditionally divided labor by gender, clothes were tailored in distinct styles for men and women. A man's coat meant to be worn while hunting, for example, would have shoulders tailored with extra room to provide unrestricted movement, while also allowing the wearer to pull their arms into the garment and close to the body for warmth. The women's coat, the amauti, was tailored to include a large back pouch for carrying infants.
Inuit clothing needed to be extremely durable. Most people only had one set of clothing, and since the creation of skin clothing was a labour-intensive, highly customized process, with base materials available only seasonally depending on the source animal, badly damaged garments were not easy to replace. Due to the value of furs, old or worn-out skin clothing was historically not discarded at the end of the season. Instead, it was repurposed as bedding or work clothing, or taken apart and used to repair newer garments.
To increase durability, seams were placed to minimize stress to the skins. For example, the shoulder seam is dropped off the shoulder, and the side seams are placed off center. Different cuts of skin were used according to their individual qualities - hardier skin from the animal's legs was used for mitts and boots, which required toughness, while more elastic skin from the animal's shoulder would be used for a jacket's shoulder, which required flexibility. Rips or tears would compromise the garment's ability to retain heat and regulate humidity, so they were repaired as soon as possible. Hunters carried sewing kits which enabled them to make repairs in the field if necessary.
Although the traditional clothing of the Inuit is broadly consistent in overall purpose and construction, the wide geographical spread of various Inuit peoples gave rise to a correspondingly broad range of clothing styles, indicating country and region of origin, and in some cases, kin group, age, and marital status. Tribal affinity was indicated by ornamental features such as variations in the patterns made by different colors of fur, the cut of the garment, and the length of fur. The range of distinguishing features on the parka alone was significant, as described by Kobayashi Issenman in Sinews of Survival, including:
the hood or lack thereof, and hood shape; width and configuration of shoulders; presence of flaps front and back, and their shape; in women's clothing the size and shape of the amaut, the baby pouch; length and outline of the lower edge; and fringes, ruffs, and decorative inserts.
As a result of socialization and trade, Inuit groups throughout their history incorporated clothing designs and styles between themselves, as well as from other Indigenous Arctic peoples such as the Chukchi, Koryak, and Yupik peoples of Siberia and the Russian Far East, the Sámi people of Scandinavia, and various non-Inuit North American Indigenous groups. There is evidence indicating that prehistoric and historic Inuit gathered in large trade fairs to exchange materials and finished goods; the trade network that supported these fairs extended across some 3,000 km (1,900 mi) of Arctic territory. Following contact with European cultures, the Inuit also began to incorporate ideas and techniques brought to them by European and Russian traders.
The Inuit added visual appeal to their clothing with trim and inlays, color contrast, decorative attachments, and design motifs.
Trim and inlays were made visually appealing with variations in fur direction, length, texture, and color. Dehaired skin was sometimes used, and textile materials such as braid and fabric tape were adopted after they became available. The Kalaallit of Greenland are particularly known for a decorative trim known as avittat, or skin embroidery, in which tiny pieces of dyed skin are appliquéd into a mosaic which resembles embroidery. Another Kalaallit technique, slit weaving, involves a strip of hide being woven through a series of slits in a larger piece of a contrasting color, producing a checkered pattern.
Dye was used to color skins and fur. Shades of red, black, brown, and yellow were made from minerals such as ochre, obtained from crushed rocks and mixed with seal oil. Plant-based dyes were available in some areas as well. Alder bark provided a red-brown shade, and spruce produced red. Lichen, moss, berries, and pond algae were also used.
Some Inuit groups used attachments like fringes, pendants, and beads to decorate their garments. Fringing on caribou garments was practical as well, as it could be interlocked between layers to prevent wind from entering. Pendants were made from all kinds of materials. Traditionally soapstone, animal bone, and teeth were the most prevalent, but after European contact, items like coins, bullet casings, and even spoons were used as decorations.
Beadwork was generally reserved for women's clothing. Before European contact, beads were made from amber, stone, tooth, and ivory. European traders brought colorful glass beads that were highly prized, and could be traded for other valuables. The Hudson's Bay Company was the largest trader of beads to the Inuit, trading strings of small seed beads in large batches, as well as more valuable beads such as the Ventian-made , which were red with a white core. Sections of strung seed beads were used as fringe or stitched directly onto the skin. Some beadwork was applied to panels of skin, which could be removed from an old garment and sewn onto a new one; such panels were sometimes passed down through families.
Inuit clothing makes heavy use of motifs, which are figures or patterns incorporated into the overall design of the garment. In traditional skin clothing, these are added with contrasting inserts, beadwork, embroidery, appliqué, or dyeing. The roots of these designs can be traced back to the Paleolithic era through artifacts which use basic forms like triangles and circled dots. Later forms were more complex and highly varied, including scrolls and curlicues, heart shapes, and even plant motifs.
The entire process of creating traditional clothing was intimately connected with Inuit spiritual beliefs. Hunting was seen as a sacred act. It was important for people to show respect and gratitude to the animals they killed, to ensure that they would return for the next hunting season. Specific practices varied depending on the animal being hunted and the particular Inuit group. Wearing clean, well-made clothing while hunting was important, because it was considered a sign of respect for the spirits of the animals. Some groups left small offerings at the site of the kill, while others thanked the animal's spirit directly. Generous sharing of the meat from a hunt pleased the animal's spirit and showed gratitude for its generosity. It was believed that the spirits of polar bears remained within the skin after death for several days. When these skins were hung up to dry, desirable tools were hung around them. When the bear's spirit departed, it took the spirits of the tools with it and used them in the afterlife.
For some groups, the timing of sewing was governed by spiritual considerations. The goddess Sedna, mistress of the ocean and the animals within, disliked caribou, so it was taboo to sew sealskin clothing at the same time as caribou clothing. Production of sealskin clothing had to be completed in the spring before the caribou hunt, and caribou clothing had to be completed in fall before the time for hunting seal and walrus.
Wearing skin clothing traditionally created a spiritual connection between the wearer and the animals whose skins are used to make the garments. This pleased the animal's spirit, and in return it would return to be hunted in the next season. It was also thought to impart the wearer with the animal's characteristics, like endurance, speed, and protection from cold. Shaping the garment to resemble the animal enhanced this connection. For example, the animal's ears were often left on parka hoods, and contrasting patterns of light and dark fur were placed to emulate the animal's natural markings. Some researchers have theorized that these patterns may also represent the animal's bones.
Amulets made of skin and animal parts were worn for protection and luck, and to invest the wearer with the animal's powers. Hunters might wear a pair of tiny model boots while out hunting to ensure that their own boots would last. Weasel skins sewn to the back of the parka provided speed and cleverness. The rattling of ornaments like bird beaks was thought to drive off evil spirits.
In addition to their everyday clothing, many Inuit had a set of ceremonial clothing made of short-haired summer skins, worn for dancing or other ceremonial occasions. In particular, the dance clothing of the Copper Inuit, a Canadian Inuit group from the territory of Nunavut, has been extensively studied and preserved in museums worldwide. Dance clothing was generally not hooded; instead, special dancing caps were worn. These dancing caps were often intricately sewn with stripes and other decorations. The Copper Inuit sewed the beaks of birds like loons and thick-billed murres to the crown of their caps, invoking their vision and speed. Traditional ceremonial clothing also incorporated masks made of wood and skin, although this practice largely died out after the arrival of missionaries and other outsiders.
An Inuit shaman, called an angakkuq, often had distinct clothing such as headdresses and belts that differentiated them from laypeople. Masks could be worn to invoke supernatural abilities, and unique head coverings, particularly of birdskin, provided a sense of power during spiritual rituals. The fur on their belts was white, and the belts themselves were adorned with amulets and tools. Mittens and gloves, though not visually distinct, were important components of shamanic rituals.
Individual skin garments are rarely found intact, as animal hide is susceptible to decay. Evidence for the historic consistency of traditional Inuit clothing is usually inferred from sewing tools and art objects found at archaeological sites. In what is now Irkutsk Oblast, Russia, archaeologists have found carved figurines and statuettes at sites originating from the Mal'ta–Buret' culture which appear to be wearing tailored skin garments, although these interpretations have been contested. The age of these figurines indicates that, if the interpretations are correct, Inuit skin clothing may have originated as early as 24,000 years ago. Tools for skin preparation and sewing made from stone, bone, and ivory, found at prehistoric archaeological sites, confirm that skin clothing was being produced as early as 2500 BCE.
Occasionally, scraps of frozen skin garments or even whole garments are found at archaeological sites. Some of these items come from the Dorset culture era of approximately 500 BCE to 1500 CE, but the majority are from the Thule culture era of approximately 1000 to 1600 CE. Although some style elements like hood height and flap size have changed, structural elements like patterns, seams, and stitching of these remnants and outfits are very similar to garments from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, which confirms significant consistency in construction of Inuit clothing over centuries. In 1972, a group of eight well-preserved and fully dressed mummies were found at Qilakitsoq, an archaeological site on Nuussuaq Peninsula, Greenland. They have been carbon-dated to c. 1475, and analysis indicates that the garments were prepared and sewn in the same manner as modern skin clothing from the Kalaallit people of the region. Archaeological digs in Utqiagvik, Alaska from 1981 to 1983 uncovered the earliest known samples of clothing of the people, carbon-dated to c. 1510. The construction of these garments indicates that Kakligmiut garments underwent little change between approximately 1500–1850.
A 1654 painting by , commissioned at Bergen, is the oldest known portrait depicting Kalaallit people in traditional clothing. It shows a group of four Kalaallit who were kidnapped by a Danish trade ship. Each is shown wearing traditional skin clothing similar to that found with the bodies at Qilakitsoq.
Beginning in the 1700s, contact with non-Inuit, including American and European traders and explorers, began to have a greater influence on the construction and appearance of Inuit clothing. These people brought trade goods such as metal tools, beads, and fabric which began to be integrated into traditional clothing. For example, imported duffel cloth was valued for boot and mitt liners. It is important to note that these new materials, tools, and techniques generally did not alter the basic structure of the traditional skin clothing system, which has always remained consistent. The Inuit selectively adopted foreign elements that simplified the construction process (such as metal needles) or aesthetically modified the appearance of garments (such as seed beads), while rejecting elements that were detrimental, (such as metal fasteners, which may freeze and snag, and synthetic fabrics, which absorb perspiration). In many cases they were dismissive of so-called "white men's clothing"; the Inuvialuit referred to cloth pants as kam'-mik-hluk, meaning "makeshift pants".
European and American clothing never replaced the traditional garments of the Inuit, but they did gain a certain degree of traction in some areas. Sometimes this was not by choice, as in the case of Labrador, Canada, where Christian missionaries in the 18th century insisted that Inuit women wear foreign garments such as skirts to religious services. In other cases, the Inuit adopted these garments themselves, making use of ready-made clothing and shawls sold by the Hudson's Bay Company. Nunavimiut men adopted crocheted woolen hats for beneath their hoods.
The production of traditional skin garments for everyday use has declined in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as a result of shrinking demand and loss of skills. The advent of indoor heating makes insulated indoor clothing less vital. Many Inuit work outdoor jobs for which fur clothing would be impractical. Purchasing manufactured clothing saves time and energy, and it can be easier to maintain than traditional skin clothing. Starting in the 1980s, opposition to seal hunting led to a significant decline in the market for seal pelts, and a corresponding drop in hunting as a primary occupation. These factors resulted in fewer elders creating skin garments and passing on their skills.
The introduction of the modern education system, particularly the Canadian Indian residential school system, interrupted the ongoing cycle of elders passing down knowledge to younger generations. Children who were sent to residential schools were often separated from their families for years, in an environment that made little to no attempt to include their language, culture, or traditional skills. Children who lived at home and attended day schools were at school for long hours most days, leaving little time for families to teach them traditional clothing-making and survival skills. Historically, day schools did not include material on Inuit culture and survival skills, compounding the cultural loss. By the mid-1990s, younger Inuit were no longer consistently learning traditional clothing-making skills from their elders, and the skills necessary to make Inuit skin clothing were in danger of being completely lost.
Since then, significant efforts have been made to reintroduce traditional skills to younger generations. The residential school system in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories had been transferred to the territorial governments and was eliminated by the 1990s. In northern Canada, many schools at all stages of education have introduced courses which teach traditional skills and cultural material. Outside of the formal education system, cultural literacy programs such as Miqqut, Somebody's Daughter, Reclaiming our Sinew, and Traditional Skills Workshop, spearheaded by organizations like Pauktuutit (Inuit Women of Canada) and (Nunavut Literacy Council), have been successful in reintroducing modern Inuit to traditional clothing-making skills. Modern-day Inuit clothing has been studied as an example of sustainable fashion.
Although full outfits of traditional skin clothing are now much less commonly worm, fur boots, coats and mittens are still popular, and skin clothing is particularly preferred for winter wear. Even garments made from woven or synthetic fabric adhere to traditional forms and styles. Much of the clothing worn today by Inuit dwelling in the Arctic has been described as "a blend of tradition and modernity." Kobayashi Issenman describes the continued use of traditional fur clothing as not simply a matter of practicality, but "a visual symbol of one's origin as a member of a dynamic and prestigious society whose roots extend into antiquity."
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Inuit clothing.|
- Skin Clothing Online: a database of clothing from Indigenous peoples from the entire circumpolar region