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Although contemporary Arctic peoples often wear mass-produced artificial fibres, such as Gore-Tex, until the last twentieth century they almost always wore the same home-made clothing that has been in use in the region for thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands of years.

This clothing is entirely made from the hides, sinews and intestines of the animals which they hunt. These animals, adapted through evolution to the harsh Arctic climate, have skins which are ideally suited to the freezing temperatures. Arctic peoples know the qualities of these skins intimately, and use different skins for different purposes; sealskins are the most waterproof and make warm and watertight boots and capes, particularly popular for hunting from kayaks; caribou skins are the warmest, the hollow hair creating a later of warm air trapped against the skin; walrus or seal gut, cut into strips and stitched together forms a completely watertight bond, making raincoats which completely protect the wearer from getting wet, a state which in an Arctic winter could prove fatal.

Although cotton thread was adopted by many Arctic groups soon after European contact, traditionally shredded sinew had been used, sewn with ivory needles kept in specially decorated needle cases for safe-keeping. The ability to make, adjust and repair clothing was an essential part of Arctic life, usually tended to by the women of the family. Young girls are taught at a very early age how to sew watertight seams and how to prepare clothing to maximise its warmth and durability.

Arctic clothing is large, bulky and comes in multiple layers. Above simple undergarments, often made from the very soft fur of baby fur seals, a complete outfit was comprised of a caribou hide parka with large hood--often trimmed with fox fur--over caribou skin trousers, mittens and large seal-skin socks and seal-skin boots known, among the Canadian Inuit, as kamiks. Above this, particularly for winter clothing, was an entire second set of clothing made of heavier fur, including outer boots known to the Canadian Inuit as mukluks. Together these sets of clothing form interlocking layers, which create a protective cocoon warmed by the wearer's body heat. Limiting movement and conserving breath enable Arctic peoples to retain the heat within their clothes even in the coldest weather.

Arctic clothing is, however, far from simple, sewn in complex patterns and often decorated with different coloured furs and, from the nineteenth century, patches and covers of cotton cloth, Arctic clothing is often varied and colourful, the patterns often denoting family or tribal affiliations and variation. In dances held at regular intervals during the year, Arctic people celebrate the annual migration cycles of the animals on whom they depend with dances, singing and sports all illuminated with highly colourful, decorated fur clothing. Clothes, to the Arctic peoples, are more than utilitarian means of surviving their environment, important though these purposes are, they are also expressions of ideology, of society and of celebration within the often monotone landscape of the far north.

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World Gallery: Additional information