Seal Skins, Staples, and Sartorial Oscillation: Inuit Arts and Me, Part 3

Fox fur is great for trim, and there’s the occasional use of rabbit, or even polar bear, if you are either a hardcore adventurer or made of money. However, the real meat (so to speak) of Inuit sewing-with-skins is done with seal skin. I’ve been longing to try sewing with sealskin for a while, so at a big craft festival last April, when the Cathedral’s fundraising table was selling a beautiful maroon sealskin, I took the plunge.

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Gorgeous, no? This one is already tanned and dyed and stamped with a size, so I’m guessing this went through a furrier before it came back to the north.

As soon as I bought it, the learning experience started. Much to my surprise, the first thing one has to do with a tanned sealskin is to block it. Yes, it’s pretty much the same idea as blocking a sweater. You get it damp, then stretch it out, stapling it to a piece of plywood to dry. This gives you up to an extra 25% of skin area and gets rid of any folds or wrinkles (after it’s stretched you roll it up to store).

Plywood is generally in plenty up here, as there are always crates of supplies coming up that are torn apart and used for everything from clubhouses to cabins to campfires. But this is a pretty big skin, and not just any board would do. Additionally, April is still a long way from the season when crates come up in ships, and last year’s flood of shipping scrap was mostly spoken for. I looked around for a piece, without success. Life and vacation intervened, and the skin sat folded up in a bag in the closet.

Finally, in August, we got out own sealift crate. It was a doozy, something like 2 meters by 2.5 meters by 1.5 meters, containing a year’s supply of canned fruit and cereal and flour and tortilla chips, four tires, and some clothes and books out of storage in our parents’ basements. My in-laws were visiting, so Jared’s dad helped us open ‘er up, and took the long top off, which was just the piece I was waiting for.

A trip to the hardware/craft supply store – inscrutably called “Baffin Electronics,” since the only thing you can’t buy there is electronics – procured me a wee staplegun, and we were ready to roll.

N helped me dampen the skin down with wet cloths, it sat in a bag overnight, then Jared helped me staple it in place.

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Fun fact: on a windy day, an enormous piece of plywood will attempt to act as a sail. Mercifully, the whole process took about ten minutes.

It didn’t grow a lot. When we stapled it on, I noticed marks along the edges that looked like they may have had staples in before, so it may have been stretched previously. Also, I may not have gotten it wet enough. But the fold marks are gone, and that was a very necessary improvement.

Some wiggling got the board back into our cold room to dry, in between the boxes we haven’t gotten around to taking to the dump and the dishwasher we haven’t gotten around to installing. If you want a picture of life without a basement, here ya go.

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It’s still out there, between empty bins and old baby stuff, because I can’t decide what to make with it. Here’s the trouble: My ultimate goal is to make big fancy things. I want to make kamiks (boots) and coats, because they are awesome and practical and beautiful. But I don’t need another coat at this point (and would need a ton more supplies), and I’m not ready to make kamiks. Kamiks (or more properly, kamiik is how you say two kamik) are really the pinnacle of Inuit sewing (or so I gather), so I should probably work my way up to that. And besides, I suspect an untanned skin is better for kamiik.

What I really need is an intermediary goal. But I just can’t decide what. A purse? A little bag? A hat? Slippers? Mittens for Martha? (I already have a pair for me.) Little flowers to hot glue on clips? A headband? A fuzzy stole? I can’t decide! When it comes down to it, this is really just a fabulous piece of fabric, and I’ve never started with a piece of fabric then decided what to make. I could make anything, and at the moment, that’s a little paralyzing.

So that’s where I’m at right now in terms of hands-on learning of Inuit sewing. I’ve made a new category for northern arts, and we’ll see how much I use it, what with the fact that I have an actual ministry job that’s interesting, plenty of knitting planned, and small children with a low tolerance for mama sitting still attending to something that is not them. Well, one day at a time. The first thing I need to do is find a screwdriver and pry those staples out. Then I can get my behind to Baffin E and see if I get a better needle for working leather. And a thimble. Definitely going to need a thimble.

One thought on “Seal Skins, Staples, and Sartorial Oscillation: Inuit Arts and Me, Part 3

  1. […] May, I bought my first sealskin: a large, maroon, tanned affair. In the fall I was given a pattern for tiny mittens and worked up […]

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