Aleut, 19th century
From Alaska, Arctic North America
Kamleikas are outer garments made of sea mammal gut, an extremely light, tough, and waterproof material. They were sewn with grass or sinew threads which expanded when soaked, making the garment waterproof. Among the Aleut, hooded kamleikas were worn as protection against wind and rain over a birdskin or fur parka. These rather sparsely decorated everyday garments usually had drawstrings around the hood and at the cuffs. Although strong, gut can tear, and of course wears out with frequent use. Aleut men, who used their kamleikas almost daily, needed about three new garments each year. Each would take about a month to make.
The Aleut also made beautiful kamleikas for festive or ceremonial occasions. These were hoodless, with a high collar and decorative bands of coloured skin at the collar, cuffs, and hem. Such parkas, like this example from the nineteenth century, were extremely valuable status symbols and articles for trading. After contact, they were given as gifts or sold to visiting Europeans and Russian officials, who appreciated them for their beauty and usefulness.
a gutskin parka
Department of Conservation, The British Museum
The gut used to make these kamleikas only stays flexible as long as it is saturated with water. In use, gut parkas were stored by rolling when damp, and were again dampened before unrolling. By the time they are brought to the Museum, they have usually become stiff, brittle and misshapen. Therefore, before display, the hardened gut of this kamleika was relaxed using water vapour. As the garment regained flexibility, it was gradually cleaned and reshaped into its original form. Holes, tears and loose elements of the decorative bands were then secured and supported with an adhesive and tinted Japanese tissue paper.
J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)
B.K. Issenman, Sinew of survival: the living (Vancouver, UBC Press, 1997)
J.E. Oakes and R. Riewe, Our boots: an Inuit womans art (New York, Thames and Hudson, 1996)
Width: 168.000 cm
Width: 168.000 cm