The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing

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Waterproof stitches
2007, 21st century
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Drawing (18637)
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-1' (181), stitch (1), waterproof stitch (1)

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Keys to History

The stitch for which Inuit seamstresses are most famous is the waterproof stitch, of which there are several kinds. The most common, called ilujjiniq, is employed for seams of waterproof boots and sometimes for mittens. This stitch is unequalled in the annals of needlework.

Waterproof seams have two lines of stitching. In the first line, the needle goes part way through the first skin and entirely through the second. In the second line, the needle goes right through the first skin and partly through the second. Some seamstresses, for the second pass, make the needle go only part way through both skins. Thus the needle and sinew never penetrate both skins at the same hole.

The sinew is threaded into a needle, the eye of which is filled by the sinew, thereby ensuring that the sinew packs the needle hole in the skin. The sinew swells with humidity, making the boot impervious to ice, water or melting snow.

  • What

    This drawing illustrates the ilujjiniq, or waterproof stitch. Traditionally, the stitches are made with sinew. More recently, synthetic sinew and sometimes dental floss have replaced sinew.

  • Where

    Waterproof stitching is an integral part of the complex Inuit clothing found across the circumpolar Arctic in Siberia, North America, Kalaallit Nunaat and Saamiland (formerly known as Lapland).

  • When

    Waterproof stitching has been used by the Inuit for thousands of years. Excavations at Ellesmere Island in Nunavut produced clothing from the Thule people dating to about 1200 CE, which included a waterproof coat made of sea mammal intestines showing much in common with Inuit gutskins of the 21st century.

  • Who

    Inuit seamstresses and their ancestors performed their "magic" on skins to produce windproof and waterproof clothing. The illustration of waterproof stitches presented here was drawn by Anne MacKay, the McCord Museum's chief conservator.