Composites in Inuit Life

What was old is new again

Previously in this series, we showed that solid water, as ice1 and as snow,2 is an essential material in Inuit culture. Water is a pure substance. However, most materials used in Inuit life are not pure substances, but composites. So the first question to answer is: “What is a composite?”

Two Inuuk women throat singing (kataqjjaq) up in north Baffin Island near Rosalina's home.PHOTO
Two Inuuk women throat singing (kataqjjaq) up in north Baffin Island near Rosalina's home. Credit: Arctic Kingdom, Inc. Iqaluit

A composite

Composites are the favoured materials of the 21st Century. A composite material can be defined as:3 

… a material made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties. When they are combined, a material is produced with characteristics different from the individual components. The individual components remain separate and distinct within the finished structure.

One of the most common and familiar modern composites is fibreglass, in which small glass fibres (glass is mostly silicon dioxide, an inorganic compound) are embedded within an organic polymer. The glass fibre is relatively strong and stiff (but also brittle), whereas the organic polymer is flexible (but also structurally-weak). Thus, the resulting fiberglass, a combination of inorganic and organic compounds, is relatively stiff and strong, and yet flexible.

Fibreglass is a relatively new synthetic composite. However, scientists and structural engineers are becoming increasingly interested in composites composed of naturally-occurring materials, including biologically-sourced ones. Organisms synthesize composites out of three main components: proteins (chains of amino-acid units), polysaccharides (chains of sugar units), and minerals. And these biological composites are seen as key to a more sustainable materials economy.4 

The Arctic

The Arctic is a hostile environment for human life – not just because of the temperature, but also it is a land of a very limited range of natural resources. Incredible ingenuity must be employed to make the most of this limited range of materials together with those materials provided by the animal inhabitants of the region. Most of these materials are composites. In fact, the Inuit have appreciated the benefits of composite materials for thousands of years. Here we will discuss the chemistry and utility of three crucial composite materials: animal skin, bone (such as caribou and whale), and wood.

Animal skin

Life would be impossible in the Arctic without materials for making clothing.5 Fortunately, the skins of land and marine mammals provide such a resource.6 But what do skins consist of? There are two major components, both organic polymers, but very different in chemical composition. The major component is called collagen, a protein consisting of amino acid units.7 Every third amino acid in the collagen sequence is the simplest amino acid, glycine. Glycine has no side chain, and, as a result, three strands of this amino-acid polymer can tightly intertwine to form a triple-helix, the actual collagen molecule. These molecules then pack in bundles to form the solid but flexible collagen fibre matrix (Fig. 1).

A) part of the amino-acid strand. B) the triple helix of the collagen molecule. C) the bundling of the molecules to form collagen fibres in animal skins.FIGURE 1 
A) part of the amino-acid strand. B) the triple helix of the collagen molecule. C) the bundling of 
the molecules to form collagen fibres in
animal skins.

The second significant component is a muco-polysaccharide, a polymer containing chains of sugar-molecules and amino-sugar molecules (also known as glycosaminoglycans). A segment is shown in Fig. 2. This provides the filler between the collagen strands and it has a ‘cushioning’ effect. Having lots of hydroxy (-OH) groups, these polymer molecules are water-absorbing and need to be removed from the skin in order to use it for clothing.

After the skin is removed from the dead animal, it is dried on wooden frames, then placed on the knees or on a flat surface and scraped free of fat and other tissues using an ulu.8 Chewing, rubbing, and soaking in liquid are among the ways to make the skin soft and pliable.9 Although Inuit women have had a greater role in the treatment of skins, Inuit men also perform these tasks when needed – just as women fill in for men sometimesin hunting for seals.

A segment of the muco-polysaccharide chain in animal skin.FIGURE 2 
A segment of the muco-polysaccharide chain in
animal skin Credit:
Glycosaminoglycan#/media/ File:Hyaluronan.svg

Rosalina recalls: My late grandmother used to clean many sealskins during the spring hunting season, possibly up to 40 skins, as many of her sons and grandchildren would catch many seals. She would wash them in salt water then stretch them and use pegs and have it leveled off of the ground to dry. Removing the seal fat is called majjak. When women are ready to use a dried skin, it is first tied up into a ball and stomped on using their feet. Once it has been softened that way, it is washed then laid flat to dry. When it is partially dry, they start the stretching process using a tasiuqquti. This is a traditional tool with a curved metal which is kind of sharp. It is now ready to use.

Kamiik (boots)

Three pairs of hand-made kamiik, the bottom pair is waterproof.FIGURE 3 
Three pairs of hand-made kamiik, the bottom pair is waterproof
Credit: Rosalina Naqitarvik

Only after this lengthy processing can the skin be cut and sewn. One necessity is that of kamiik (boots) (kamiik, two boots; kamik, one boot; kamiit, many skin boots).9 Articles of clothing, such as kamiik, are not just utilitarian, but they are each works of art by the individual seamstress (Fig. 3). According to Elder Ulayok Kaviok of Arviat, Nunavut:10

“…during the skin boot production process, elders pass on oral traditions to young seamstresses who are interested in traditional rituals and sharing systems. The first pair of skin boots sewn by a young sibling is a symbol of her bond with the traditional lifestyle and the importance of sharing Inuit and Inuvialuit culture.”


The amauti (amautiit, plural) is one of the most beautiful and useful of Inuit clothing.11 Amautiit is the parka worn by Inuit women with very young children (Figs. 4a and 4b). Up until about two years of age, the child nestles against the mother’s back in the amauti, the built-in baby pouch just below the hood. The pouch is large and comfortable for the baby. The mother can bring the child from back to front when necessary, without exposure to the elements. In addition to keeping the child warm and safe from frostbite, wind, and cold, it also helps to develop bonding between mother and child.

A. (left) Rosalina Naqitarvik’s mother in amauti with Rosalina in the pouch B. (right) Rosalina Naqitarvik in amauti with Iris Kilabuk in the pouch.FIGURE 4 
A. (left) Rosalina Naqitarvik’s mother in amauti with Rosalina in the pouch
B. (right) Rosalina Naqitarvik in amauti with Iris Kilabuk in the pouch.
Credit: Rosalina Naqitarvik

Rosalina adds: Amautiit are still very popular as they are the best protection against the cold for the baby. There are different styles and back sizes. Amautiit need to be form fitted to the woman’s body or else it will be too uncomfortable for the baby. Carrying a baby in the amauti creates a closer connection and bond between mother and baby, although, some men carry their babies too wearing the amauti. They are a special symbol for special occasions and gatherings in which the pouch is made to not fit a baby as it is more for formal wear. Sewing an amauti takes a lot of different kinds of material such as commander, hollofill, bias tapes, sealskins, caribou skin, and fox fur. It takes a special talent to sew an amauti as it has to be sewn in a specific way to be able to carry the baby properly. I grew up in an amauti. Below is a poem I wrote back in high school that is now showcased as a big wooden painting in Inuktitut.

I am in my dear mother’s amauti;

I feel the warmth of our love while
my body is against hers.

I am noticing the world for the first time.

I point at the stars in awe.

They are as bright as my mother.

I observe the many flowers in the summer
while I’m in the

I am being introduced to different
colours and scents.

My mother and I have an inseparable bond
that could be described in many ways;
which cannot be broken.

 As I sleep in the amauti, I dream of a calm life.

Waterproof clothing

Girl’s waterproof parka made from seal gut skin, eastern Greenlandic Inuit group. FIGURE 5 
Girl’s waterproof parka made from seal gut skin,
eastern Greenlandic Inuit group. Credit:

Sealskins which are dehaired and black in colour are waterproof. The garments made from them are called iqaqti, and they are used for spring kamiik and mittens. Specific stitches are used to ensure that the seams prevent water leakage. Also very warm, iqaqti are still made today and are popular during the weather transition. To make light-weight rainwear, seal gut is used. Fig. 5 shows a waterproof jacket constructed by sewing together sections of seal gut.


There are two common sources of bone: caribou antler and whale bone. Like most composite materials, bone consists of two components which complement each other: one, known as the matrix, provides the tensile strength and the other which provides the compressive strength.12 In bone, the matrix is comprised of the organic polymer, collagen (discussed above). The other component, which comprises about 70 per cent of the structure is the inorganic mineral, calcium hydroxyapatite, Ca5(PO4)3(OH). It is the interlocking hard crystals of the mineral which provide the rigidity. In Fig. 6 below, the three constituent ions are represented diagrammatically to show how they fit together to form a very strong, rigid structure.

Thick, warm clothing is essential for Inuit survival. To sew together the seal skins, caribou skins, and bear fur, needles were essential, and these were made of bone. Every Inuit family traditionally had a set of bone needles, together with a needlework kit and case (Fig. 7). Carving needles from bone (often bird bone) has to be one of the most painstaking of the many tasks involved in traditional Inuit life.

A diagrammatic representation of the packing of the ions in the crystal lattice of calcium hydroxyapatite, Ca5(PO4)3(OH). Adapted from:

A diagrammatic representation of the packing of the ions in the crystal lattice of calcium hydroxyapatite, Ca5(PO4)3(OH).

Inuit bone needles and walrus tusk case

Inuit bone needles and walrus tusk case.


There is a specific use for whale bone: the framework of boats. Though non-Inuit are familiar with kayak (one of several Inuit words appropriated into English), few realize that the means of family and group marine travel is an umiak (Fig. 8). The framework is made of whale bones (or wood, when available) pegged together with antler bone or walrus ivory.13 The frame is covered with skins, often walrus skins which are sewn together with caribou sinew, and seal oil is used to coat and waterproof the seams. Propelled by oars (women) or paddles (men), an umiak can be anywhere from six to ten metres long. In the eastern Arctic, umiak were usually used for the transportation of families to-and-from summer fishing camps.

Transporting Inuit families along the Greenland coast in two umiak in 1875, accompanied by three kayak.FIGURE 8 
Transporting Inuit families along the Greenland coast in two umiak in 1875, accompanied by three kayak. Credit:


Like animal skins, wood is an organic-organic composite. There are two primary components of wood: cellulose (up to 50 per cent) and lignin (up to 25 per cent). As with all these useful composites, one provides the rigid framework, in this case, cellulose fibres, while the other, lignin, the matrix, fills the spaces within the framework and provides the flexibility. Cellulose is a long-chain polymer consisting of linked sugar units (Fig. 9). Lignin is an unusual enormous biomolecule in that it has no standard composition, but with a general formula approximating to (C31H34O11)n, where n is a large number.14

Part of the chain of sugar molecules forming the cellulose chain.FIGURE 9 
Part of the chain of sugar molecules forming the cellulose chain. Credit:

In more southerly latitudes, wood is treated as something that is ubiquitous and unremarkable. However, in the High Arctic, north of the tree-line, the only wood available is driftwood, as no trees grow in the Arctic. Collected by the northern Inuit, these pieces found on the shorelines were valued for the many roles that wood could be used for. Fig. 10 shows the use of drift-wood framework for the construction of an Inuit summer dwelling.

Framework for an Inuit summer dwelling.FIGURE 10 
Framework for an Inuit summer dwelling. Credit:


Jago Cooper, British archaeologist and Curator of the Americas at the British Museum encapsulates the world of the Inuit beautifully:15

The unique materiality of frozen Arctic landscapes has encouraged people, both past and present, to learn technological resourcefulness and adopt technical ingenuity. ... The underlying principle for Arctic communities is that their way of life is based on the careful management and efficient use of available resources. ... The role of objects in Arctic society, the intrinsic value they contain and respect they demand, go far beyond the utilitarian associations of their everyday function.


  1. Andersen, C.; Rayner-Canham, G. Sea Ice: Essential for northern survival. Chem 13 News, February 2019.
  2. Andersen, C.; Rayner-Canham, G. Snow: Making Life Possible in the Arctic. Chem 13 News, December 2019.
  3. Wikipedia. Composite material. Composite_material.
  4. Eder, M.; Amini, S.; Fratzl, P. Biological Composites-Complex Structures for Functional Diversity. Science 2018, 362, 543-547.
  5. Arctic Clothing of North America−Alaska, Canada, Greenland, King, J.C.H.; Pauksztat, B.; Storrie, R., Eds.; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.
  6. Issenman, B.K. Sinews of Survival: The Living Legacy of Inuit Clothing; University of British Columbia Press, 1998.
  7. Naffa, R.; Maidment, C.; Holmes, G.; Norris, G. Insights into the Molecular Compositions of Skins and Hides used in Leather Manufacture. Journal of the American Leather Chemists Association 2019, 114, 29-37.
  8. Andersen, C.; Rayner-Canham, G. The Ulu: Chemistry and Inuit women’s culture, Chem 13 News, March 2019.
  9. This informative blog post includes several photos of women preparing seal skins in a variety of ways: Dobbin, J. Inuit women and seals: a relationship like no other. Library and Archives Canada Blog, January 20, 2017. inuit-women-and-seals-a-relationship-like-no-other.
  10. Oakes, J.E.; Riewe, R. Our Boots: An Inuit Women's Art, Douglas & McIntyre, 1995.
  11. Wikipedia. Amauti.
  12. Piekarski, K. Analysis of Bone as a Composite Material. International Journal of Engineering Science. 1973, 11 (6), 557-558.
  13. Adney, E.; Chappelle, H.I. The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America; Smithsonian Books, 1993, p. 190.
  14. Wikipedia. Lignin.
  15. Lincoln, A.; Cooper, J.; Laurens Loovers, J.P., The Citi exhibition: Arctic Culture and Climate; Thames and Hudson, 2020.