A steep trek uphill past a collection of colorful apartment buildings brings you to a small, nondescript red building. Little signage tells you what happens behind the white door that leads you into Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, the only school for traditional sewing in the Inuit world.
Meet Pituaq Maria Kleist, teacher (Ilinniartitsisoq). Pituaq was once a student in the two-year program that teaches Greenlanders the skills needed to create the traditional clothing so important to their culture. Now she teaches others with the hope of reviving this lost art across the Inuit Arctic. Everyone who goes through the school leaves with the skills needed to create and teach others. Every part of the process is important, from preparing the seal skins used as raw material, to designing the hand-sewn displays of color and pattern. When they graduate, each student will have created a full outfit for a woman, a full outfit for a man, as well as two children’s sets. They keep their products, but more importantly, they take with them important cultural knowledge to pass on to future generations.
As I toured the school last Sunday, I could see desks filled with in-progress work of the students. To protect their designs, I was asked only to take photos from afar. String made from natural fibers and beeswax and scraps of seal skin and leather in the process of being formed cover the work spaces. Around the room, finished pieces hang in inspiration to those completing work that will take them the better part of two years to complete.
In addition to seeing the workspace, I had a chance to hear how the clothing is made. It starts with preparing the traditional raw material, seal skin. The ulu or women’s knife is an important tool in this process that includes soaking, scraping, drying, and preparing the seal skins for more than a year. Here is a quick video of Pituaq explaining the use of the ulu in their work.
The ulu is an important symbol of Inuit culture all over Greenland. I learned how regions have different traditional designs, a typology that helps you identify the origins of someone from the shape of their ulu. These knives are used in a lot of traditional and modern activities, including this hand-processing of seal skins to make clothing.
The colorful outfits created in Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik are an important part of Greenlandic culture. Each Greenlander has one, reserved for special occasions. Marriages, religious ceremonies, even the first day of school calls Greenlanders to put on the customary clothes and celebrate in a display of color and traditional materials. Often, the style of the outfit communicates meaning. Distinct traditions around Greenland have resulted in slight variations between the outfits from West Greenland (kalaallisut), East Greenland (tunumiutuut), and Northwest Greenland (arnatuut). Historically, families had traditional designs that acted like a family crest, designs some have lost over the years. On women, a yoke of colorful beads lays over a tunic (anorak). The woman’s outfit also includes pants that stop at mid-thigh to make room for tall, lined sealskin boots called kamiks. Mens’ outfits are a bit less colorful, but include hooded anoraks, pants, and kamiks. The processes required to make these traditional clothes take time and skill. At Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, you learn every step needed to produce this wearable expression of Inuit culture.
While touring the school, I learned a bit more about the background of these pieces of art. Embedded in them is a complicated history of cultural contact, changing what is deemed traditional to Inuit communities. The color and beading you see in the outfits were introduced when Europeans arrived. A distinct shift in the design of clothing was the result of contact with outsiders. Likewise, I learned a bit more about the history of the styles. Patterns throughout the clothing were often embedded with information in the past. Certain colors could signal a social status of the wearer, a status designated by the colonial government. For example, Pituaq explained that colors could be used to identify unwed mothers and others treated as lower in social standing. Likewise, some of the designs were inspired by rebellion. The Inuit tattooing tradition that Pituq now wears proudly on her arms and face was outlawed when Europeans arrived. Some women chose to quietly rebel, weaving the tattoo designs into their clothes. As such, a piece of clothing that today looks like a cheerful display of Greenlandic-ness also encapsulates a complicated history and clash of cultures. When you come to Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, you learn the traditions both before and after European influence, designing clothes that display as much history as they do craft.
As I sat and talked with Pituaq last Sunday morning, it became clear that her ambitions go beyond teaching the women (and a few men) who enroll at Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik. She sees the production of these pieces as a celebration of her culture but also a channel to share important historical information. Her hope is to reach beyond the boundaries of Sisimiut and even Greenland. Much of the traditions taught at this school have been lost in the Canadian and Alaskan Inuit communities. As such, she hopes their revival of these cultural practices will eventually move west. Many in Greenland find this work important given how few in the Inuit community know these techniques. The logistics of training people in this craft, however, creates limits. Despite this, teachers like Pituaq and others at Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik will continue their hard work reviving this lost art in the Inuit world.
11/12/2021 08:14:40 am
It's amazing that you got to go to the school and see the projects for yourself. It's interesting that you learn the tradition before and after European culture giving you a chance to see how it has changed or been added to. I think the fact that the patterns hold information is cool but could also be confusing at times. What was your favorite part about the culture when learning about the clothing and Inuit tattoo traditions?
11/12/2021 12:19:37 pm
It's insane that there's such an extensive process to make clothing, but the end results are gorgeous. And I find it really neat that they make them for not only adults but children as well. I also like that they're able to take their work home, it's something they'll get to keep for memories or pass down.
11/12/2021 03:45:54 pm
The fact that Pituaq is able to teach others how to not only create these pieces themselves but also teach others is amazing. The more students that she teaches, the more this process of making traditional clothing comes back to life! I think that is really cool and also important because it allows the students to not only reconnect with a piece of their history but it also allows them to teach others who can keep the process going so it is not forgotten.
11/12/2021 04:20:56 pm
It is quite fascinating the way cultural heritage is being revived through the traditional sewing techniques being taught in the Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik school. After completing the two year program, one will be able to cloth a family of four in tradition Inuit Greenlandic outfits as well as pass on vital heritage knowledge that is rich in history. It is also interesting that the tattoo designs that were outlawed after European contact began to appear in the clothing designs in a form of resistance and rebellion to colonialism. Although I am learning about how subjugated people often used foodways, religion, and mundane day-to-day activities in order to resist oppression, the tattoo designs in clothing is a form of resistance that would not have considered.
11/12/2021 06:57:14 pm
That’s so cool that they get to learn about creating their own clothes and continue to keep the culture alive. I think it would be awesome to make these different outfits! It’s also interesting to learn about the different styles based off of their location whether it be from the west or east or wherever it may be!
11/13/2021 05:02:25 pm
It's important that the traditional practice of making Greenlandic Inuit clothing isn't forgotten and is actively taught to residents of Greenland who are interested in preserving the art. It takes quite a bit of skill to properly work hides into a material that can be used to make all sorts of clothing, as well as the embroidery and beading that go into giving the clothes their character.
11/14/2021 01:05:45 am
I think her face tattoos are pretty cool. Did she ever happen to mention how many seals are used for an average size , maybe 1 years piece of fabric. I've heard of all these other animal textures but never actually felt seal fabric. it's always interesting to learn different countries cultural/traditional clothing items and how they dress. Would you happen to have a before and after or the difference between the European influence and traditional outfit.
11/14/2021 06:06:29 am
I don't have a side by side of the pre-European and European clothing but the pre-contact pieces would have been the natural seal skins and materials without beading, bright colors, and non-local fabrics. For example, in the picture of Pituaq holding the kamiks (boots) you can see she is wearing seal skinned boots that are without colorful ornaments or decoration.
11/14/2021 11:44:05 am
The clothing looks absolutely beautiful and knowing how much hard work and acquired knowledge is put into the clothing, makes it even more special and beautiful. Although there is only one school that teaches the making of this traditional clothing, I'm glad to hear that there is at least one and there are efforts being in place to try to conserve this cultural heritage. I believe it is so important to teach and pass down to our children our culture and the importance to keep it alive.
11/14/2021 07:30:13 pm
This was very interesting! I find the work that Pituaq is doing to be amazing. She's not only teaching and preserving this sewing technique for the current generations but also preserving it for future generations as she gives her students the ability to pass the knowledge down. I also find it cool how you can tell where someone is from based on the shape and design of their ulu!
11/14/2021 08:26:47 pm
This is so cool! I love that we can see and read about how they make these beautiful clothes and I totally understand how they didn't want you to get too close since they take so long to make. I'm so glad that there's still someplace that teaches these traditional methods and keeps the practice alive and well!
11/14/2021 08:51:03 pm
I was very intrigued to learn that Greenlands traditional clothing is made from seal skins! It is neat that every Greenlander has a colorful outfits created in Kalaallisuuliornermik Ilinniarfik, for special occasions. They are so beautiful. It is very unique and cool that the patterns in the clothing tell a story of the past. I have never seen anything like it.
11/15/2021 03:28:42 am
Not all the traditional clothes are made at this school. There are still people around the Arctic (typically of an older generation) who were taught the processes by a family member. They still make them for their family and others without attending the school...but there are not many of them who learned the old way from the passing on of knowledge from their parents/grandparents. The generational learning was interrupted by a number of cultural changes. That is why the school does its work, to increase that number of people who know how to make these clothes!
11/15/2021 04:16:39 pm
I absolutely love the clothes. I see myself as an cultural anthropologist so I find my self in many classes relating to that. After seeing their clothes, I had the urge to look up "Green Land People" just to see what will come up in the images. The clothing and the people are the same that are here, I dont know why I thought it would be different or "white washed" but it was not. The people here reminds so much of the native people that I learned about in Mexico.
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I am an anthropology professor, writer, researcher and global traveler. In fall of 2021, I led an experiential eLearning project connecting US students (and others) with the people, places, and industries of Greenland. I redesigned a research trip into a virtual field trip for my students who didn't have any Study Abroad options. All of the videos, photos, interviews, and storytelling are still here to enjoy!