Parka coats can be found in wardrobes around the world but did you know that this classic coat design originated in the Arctic?
Amber Lincoln, curator of the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, explores how Arctic parkas are made, how they keep you warm and what their designs signify.
Parkas: a gift from the North
What is a 'parka'?
The word 'parka' – describing a kind of warm winter coat with a hood – derives from the Nenets language (the Indigenous Peoples of Northwest Siberia). Not only do the Nenets live with severely cold temperatures in the high Arctic, but they also travel thousands of kilometers on sleds and snow mobiles with their reindeer in those very cold temperatures. For them, parkas are absolutely essential.
The Nenets, like other Indigenous Arctic Peoples, have created distinctive styles of parkas based on local weather conditions, available materials and aesthetic values. We have Indigenous Arctic Peoples to thank for the existence and stylistic diversity of this now ubiquitous outerwear garment, defined by its attached hood. Many big-name outdoor clothing companies, including Patagonia, Superdry, North Face and Sweaty Betty, have borrowed ingenious designs from Arctic seamstresses – a gift Arctic Peoples have shared with the world.
The essence of what makes a parka is the attached hood. But this defining feature is certainly not an obstacle to creative expression. Indigenous Arctic Peoples have fashioned parkas using a dizzying array of materials, styles and techniques. The displays of Arctic clothing in the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate demonstrate the spectacular diversity of the fashionable ways of staying warm in a parka.
The caribou parka was a very important part of our clothing. We had to take care of them… If stored in a cold place, folded carefully and put away dry, a good parka could last longer than two years.
Mary Mucpa of Mittimatalik, Canada
What are Arctic parkas made from?
Parkas have been made out of numerous kinds of material, but caribou or reindeer fur are widely preferred across the Arctic, due to their incredible warmth. Using a scanning electron microscope, Museum scientists have magnified a caribou hair to reveal a structure that looks like bubble-wrap. This traps hot air, which keeps the animal, or anyone wearing clothes made from the fur, very warm.
If caribou or reindeer fur becomes wet, however, the hairs become saturated with water and are no longer able to trap heat. Therefore, removing snow and ice crystals from caribou or reindeer fur clothing is essential. Melted snow or ice would otherwise saturate the parka. This print depicts the everyday task of beating snow and ice crystals off fur clothing with a snow knife before bringing them into a warm home or shed.
Both the age and the seasonality of animal fur produces different kinds of material properties. Young fawns are often used for children's clothing. This elegant young woman's parka from Western Greenland is likely made from summertime caribou fur, when the hides were thinnest. It was carefully worked and trimmed to display the delicate motifs and trims.
Bird feathers, fish skin and even seal gut are other materials used to make parkas, though they are used less commonly today. This beautiful black and white parka is made of bird skins, either from Little Auk or thick-billed murre birds. It is from Northwest Greenland and was made in the 1880s by an Inughuit seamstress. The American explorer Robert Peary collected it from Smith Sound, Nunavut, during one of his expeditions to the eastern Arctic. Just like the down that fills our puffer coats, these skin-on down and feathers insulate and repel moisture and would have been worn with the feathers against the skin.
The bird skin short parka (above) contrasts with this women's long fancy parka from Western Alaska, which is made of different kinds of animal fur. See this Curator's corner video to find out more.
What do different parka designs mean?
Because parkas and other sewn garments convey important messages about the skill of the maker and the success of his or her household, fur clothing is made to be beautiful. Seamstresses express their creativity and lineage in the functional garments they make. Trim patterns, such as that on the parka made by Inupiat seamstress Ester Norton of Kotzebue Alaska, are often passed down through families.
Different styles and patterns indicate where someone is from and to whom they belong. Parkas are often made for family members as gifts. Some parkas are passed down to younger relatives, but most often parkas are made for one particular person. Because of their links to identity and family, parkas are worn proudly during celebrations and festivals, such as the end of the Iditarod Sled Dog race in Nome, Alaska.
How long have people been wearing parkas in the Arctic?
Tailored clothing, like parkas sewn by a needle, made life in the Arctic possible. Fitted clothing insulated people from the cold while enabling them to move freely to travel, hunt and accomplish tasks. While the earliest clothing items are extremely rare to find in the archaeological record, carved figurines and engraved images on bone, tusk, and antler depict people wearing garments with hoods going back 20,000 years!
Making parkas and other tailored clothing was a complex business, involving the production of tools like needles, cases for needles and awls, and the tanning and treatment of raw materials and sewing techniques. What is more, because different furs have particular material properties, they serve different needs for individual wearers. Obtaining such raw materials, therefore required a pre-meditated hunting plan (choosing particular animals and the time of year to hunt them). It also required communication and coordination between the hunter and the maker of the clothing – roles historically distributed along gender lines.
How do parkas keep you warm?
These very early Arctic seamstresses, like seamstresses from the North today, rely on thermodynamic properties of fur. Many groups of Indigenous Arctic Peoples wear two layers. Nenets men wear a hooded parka with fur inwards with a drawstring that traps warm air around the hood and waist, as shown by the Nenets reindeer herders below.
A second layer is worn with fur facing outward and sleeves are sewn with attached mittens. A slit is left at the wrist wide enough for a hand to slide through. This brilliant solution to the 'lost mitten problem' enables the wearer to quickly access their bare hands.
Nenets women wear a button-up parka called a yagushka. Both kinds of garments trap heat between two layers of fur. These parkas are loose enough to allow warm air to dissipate throughout the body and be released up through the hood so that the hides do not become wet from perspiration.
Similarly, Inuit seamstresses make double-layered garments for men as well using the same technique as the Nenets seamstresses of making an inward fur layer, worn underneath an outward-facing fur layer. There are eight individual items made from caribou hide in this hunting attire made by Leonie Orunnaut from Iglulik, Canada, including: inner and outer trousers and parkas, fur socks, fur boots and thick mitts. While it looks quite heavy, Mary Mucpa explains that seamstresses scrape thin the epidermis layer, which greatly reduces the weight of hides. Seamstresses also create fringes on the bottom trim of these parkas in order to trap heat while standing but to enable walking and running when needed. This historical and ingenious method of insulation relied on the ecologically rich knowledge base of seamstresses, who understood the distinct properties of various furs and passed down their knowledge successfully, so that it is used even today.
Producing beautiful, functional and warm parkas involves handcrafted tools, ecological knowledge and generous relationships. Arctic Peoples describe hunting as the giving and receiving of gifts, not the killing of animals. The caribou used to make this hunting outfit gave itself willingly to the hunter, who presented the hide and meat to his wife. By sharing the meat with her community and making clothes for her husband, she mediates between hunter and animal. Seamstresses symbolically regenerate the prey in their sewn garments, made to resemble caribou to ensure future hunting success. The beauty of hides sewn, the evenness of the stitches in clothing and the durability of hunting attire underscores love and success.
Discover more about life in the Arctic on the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate page, which features blogs, an image gallery and videos. This exhibition ran from 22 October 2020 to 21 February 2021.
Lead supporter Citi
Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald
Buy the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition here. Included in The Times' Best Art Books of the Year 2020.