How did pre-modern Inuit stay warm all winter?
October 14, 2011 1:28 AM   Subscribe

From what I remember of the Inuit film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the clothing, though heavy, seemed to fit very loosely. Although it seemed fine for the relatively mild weather of the film, I wondered if it would be effective enough when it was colder. How different was winter clothing during the era in the film? What are other practical details of staying warm outdoors for many hours in arctic or subarctic climates? Or did people just stay indoors?

How and how often would parkas be washed? What kind of under-layers were worn? How common was a change of clothes? How common was bathing?

Basically, I am looking for any good books that get into the details of staying warm for a long time in extreme outdoor cold prior to the modern era.
posted by Lirp to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm no expert, but from what I recall of Greenlandic Inuit history, the sealskins were never washed --- basically just worn until they fell apart. ('Laundry' wasn't an Inuit concept.) As I recall, there wasn't anything like what we consider 'underclothes', just more layers of sealskins as needed. The clothing WAS worn loose; it provides a space for an interior air layer, which will help retain warmth. The main difference between men's and women's clothing was the lenght of the tunic: the men's tunic was longer, down to the knees or so, while the women's was just past hip-lenght. Both were hooded, and both men and women wore pants and boots. (The boots were usually multiple layers of polar bear, if available.) Both sexes tended to strip off their clothing inside, and only wore it outside.

There are a number of pictures of explorers like Peary and Matthew Henson you could find with them in traditional Inuit clothing; they usually worn it over their normal clothing, but admitted the Inuit sealskins were warmer than their American coats. The sealskins were also very water-repellant.

At least in northern Greenland, the temperature (in my personal experience) ranges from about 2-3 weeks of +50 degrees F in summer to about a month of -60 degrees F in winter, so adding or subtracting layers of sealskins was useful.
posted by easily confused at 3:26 AM on October 14, 2011

Oh, and just as laundry wasn't an Inuit concept, neither was bathing: getting wet in that environment was usually dangerous.
posted by easily confused at 3:28 AM on October 14, 2011

What are other practical details of staying warm outdoors for many hours in arctic or subarctic climates?

Read any of the books written about Fridtjof Nansen the 19th century arctic explorer. He led the first expedition across Greenland.

Nansen was a Norwegian and based all of his expeditions on the outdoor knowledge of the Sami - the semi-nomadic tribes that live in the far north of Scandinavia.

The key thing is keeping dry. Nansen mentioned that the Sami people moved slowly and took effort to avoid exertion that would lead to sweating. You would not see anyone running in bitter cold temperatures.
posted by three blind mice at 3:41 AM on October 14, 2011

My father grew up in an unheated farmhouse in northern Minnesota during the Depression (yeah, we got no traction with him on anything -- he had always had it worse). Anyway, he talked about working outside during the winter, which was not quite to arctic levels (but still well into the -Fs). What I took away from his stories is that the workers wore a lot of layers and would strip off as they exerted themselves, since sweating was really bad. Eventually, you would be down to long underwear on top, relying on your increased body heat to keep you warm. Now, they were rarely far from shelter, so they weren't so concerned with long-term warmth retention, and I understand that wind was something of a problem, but layers and no sweat seemed to be pretty important.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:39 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind with the Inuit and other Arctic people is that their physiology is particularly adapted to their environment, as well. Clothing that keeps them warm enough in extreme cold might not be sufficient for someone of a different body type.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:54 AM on October 14, 2011

They talk about this in The Last Place on Earth, an account of Amundsen & Scott's race to the South Pole. Amundsen took a cue from Nansen and learned how to survive in the Antarctic by studying the people who live in the arctic.

Parkas have an integrated hood and a loose bottom. The hood keeps rising heat in better than a scarf & hat combo, and the loose bottom allows ventilation to keep you dry without losing too much warmth. If you sweat and get soggy, you'll get hypothermia real quick.

Amundsen's expedition used parkas, and they came back healthy and happy and actually gained weight on the return trip. Scott used wool, hats, scarves, and other traditional English cold-weather gear, and we know how that turned out. It's only part of the story, of course, but read the book for more info on that (and lots more about Amundsen's methodical approach to learning how to stay alive at the poles).
posted by echo target at 7:11 AM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

At least two of the materials they used have special properties - caribou hairs are hollow and provide superior insulation in garments, and the wolf fur used as hood trim supposedly would not become covered with frost from breathing.
posted by canoehead at 7:40 AM on October 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a person that goes into the Québec forest in winter around 49° N, and experienced temperatures of -40°C and lower, I can reiterate that the warmest clothes are the ones that are loose enough to keep an air layer.
If you wear something thick but you are wrapped tight like a sausage you'll feel the cold right through. The principle is basically that your outerclothes cut the worse of the wind and go cold but air itself is a bad conductor and your body heats the air layer in-between faster than your clothes can make it go cold.

Sweating is also pretty bad, so when going to exercise like going for a snowmobile ride off-road or whatever, we wear undergarments design to breathe but of course they are products of modern design, the Inuits went without fine. (Sometimes all the layers make it worse too, and the best thing is stripping a bit since your exertion is producing enough heat to keep up- wearing more would see you drenched in sweat and everyone said it: that's bad.)

The animal pelts used are extremely efficient at keeping warmth and do not need "washing" (it'd probably deteriorate them more than doing any good).
Finally, you have to consider that people living in extreme cold conditions have to keep a very caloric diet, usually with a lot of fat intake, just to maintain their body temperature.

The French Canadian colons quickly found out about these principles too, so has to survive before our modern house designs, heating systems and modern clothes materials. Coming from European climates and living in houses made of logs, people had to quickly adopt furs, thick fabrics and woolens, and of course the diet that sees traditional French Canadian cuisine full of crazy fatty and high caloric things like beans, maple syrup, molasses, lardons, bacon, etc...

So in short: pelts + air layer + keeping dry + eating a truckload of calories.
posted by CelebrenIthil at 7:46 AM on October 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not that you asked, but gut was used to make rainproof clothing.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:45 AM on October 14, 2011

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available online, but Threads Magazine (27: 11, Feb/Mar 1990) had an interesting article on traditional Inuit clothing construction and sewing techniques, if you're interested in how the clothes were made. Diagrams showed the thread path of various hand-stitching techniques, with different stitches used for waterproof seams and eased/tucked areas. There's also a discussion of how pelts were chosen and processed for various properties. Fur garments always look sort of atavistic, but traditional Inuit clothes were as intricately engineered as any modern tactical or high-performance gear.
posted by Quietgal at 9:52 AM on October 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: All of this is fantastic. Thank you. I'll look into the books mentioned.

As a followup question, is the basic "integrated hood and loose bottom" still the preferred design for cold-weather clothing (materials aside), or has it been surpassed by something new since, say, the Amundsen/Scott expeditions?

Who makes cold weather clothing for the arctic, anyway? In other threads, I saw scoffing at mainstream "outdoorsman" stores like REI.
posted by Lirp at 3:55 PM on October 14, 2011

As of about 20 years ago, every Greenlandic Inuit I knew wore a parka with an integrated hood --- something like Goretex was good, but the preference was still for sealskin, as it deal with the temperature extremes better, was longer-wearing and less likely to rip or be damaged, and retained its watershedding properties better.

Sometimes, it's hard to beat the tried-and-true traditional stuff that's had it's kinks worked out over the centuries. Nowadays, the traditional sealskin parkas are usually trimmed around the cuffs and lower hem with braid and/or ribbons, but that's about the only concession to modernity, other than the lenght for both men's and women's now both usually ending just below the butt: they're still pullover-styled, and always with that attached hood.
posted by easily confused at 6:16 PM on October 14, 2011

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