The Art and Science of Staying Warm
People around the world are starting to clue in to what Northerners have always known: if you want to stay warm, there’s nothing better than a northern parka.
Shawna Dias’s sewing machine is tucked away at her work table behind racks of fur. Hot pink, bright yellow, baby blue, they hang like a fluffy rainbow at attention, the whiskers on the fox faces twitching in anticipation when customers run their hands down their plush lengths. In the space of only about a day, she can transform them into custom made parkas from her Rankin Inlet home.
“When I first started, I didn’t think it was going to be a business type of thing. I didn’t realize they were going to get so popular,” she says. To be fair, Dias was 12 when she first learned to sew coats, watching her mother stitch. Today, she’s one of the most popular parka makers in the Kivalliq, with a lively Facebook page and a waiting list in the triple digits for custom orders.
“I’m not kidding, there’s already like 100 before Christmas I have to get done,” she says. She’s not sure how many parkas she turns out in a year, but her niece counted just the parkas on her page, Dias Designs, and says she made around 200 in six months. They’re not all staying in Nunavut either, where custom-made parkas are a common sight. She takes orders from all over Canada, and even into the United States. Dias creates all her own patterns, based on people’s measurements or, if they’re in Rankin, their body shape.
“Everyone’s got a different body shape. So it’s so much easier freehand cutting out a coat for somebody,” she says. “It’s what we grew up with, so it’s just what we use. Well, that’s what I have used because of how my mother used to make them. She was born in 1927, so she’s been sewing since she was how old? So, old patterns!”
Parkas have been here for centuries. And now people around the world are starting to clue into what Northerners have always known: if you want to stay warm, there’s nothing better than a northern parka.
In fact, it may have been what kept our species alive. In 2016, Mark Collard from Simon Fraser University released a paper that posits Neanderthals may have died out while early modern humans survived because they didn’t have specialized cold-weather clothing. He and his grad students studied the bones of animals left behind at ancient sites inhabited by both early modern humans and Neanderthals and concluded that animals like rabbits, foxes, wolves, and wolverines were likely used as a source of fur, rather than food, for early modern humans. Bone needles and other evidence at the sites also suggest early modern humans were tanning hides and creating fitted, cold-weather garments, while Neanderthals were donning, at best, simple cape-like garments.
It helps explain why even though other studies have found that the bodies of early modern humans seemed to have been adapted more for tropical conditions, they still outlived Neanderthals—whose stout bodies and short limbs evolved for more glacial conditions. In addition to protecting from frostbite and hypothermia, parkas would have allowed for a greater range of hunting and gathering and longer stays on the land, which would have increased the chances of not just the survival, but the opportunity to thrive.
If Shawna Dias’s house is guarded by rows of fur, the Kitikmeot Heritage Society features rows of parkas, standing sentinel through time. Its Patterns of Change exhibit features examples of Inuinnait parkas over 150 years.
Pamela Gross, executive director of the Kitikmeot Heritage Society, says the exhibit celebrates “how ingenious our people were to create garments that were very beautiful, finely made and resourceful.” The examples span everything from traditional parkas made from caribou and the Mother Hubbard-style, through to parkas with intricate beading and “traditional with a twist” (as Gross puts it) modern parkas, using brightly dyed seal skin.
“We’re able to showcase our culture through these pieces. As Inuit, we’re known for who we are, usually in history through our clothing. It’s the best representation of who we are because each region and regional group of people in outpost camps have various styles.”
Those garments are written over with history, Gross says, with changes expressing major events in the lives of northern peoples—not all of them good, but all of them impacting the living culture and what people wore. From first contact bringing new materials like calico and changes in shapes and styles through the DEW Line era, to exchanges of techniques like floral embroidery when students from different parts of the North mingled at residential schools.
The exhibit ends with modern parkas embracing and celebrating traditions that were once repressed.
She says defining where those stylistic changes came from was a project in itself. It’s hard to pin down, even today, exactly why individual parka styles are preferred in each region of the North. Some of it has to do with what people are doing and using the parkas for, some of it has to do with tradition, but a lot of it comes down to the styles and preferences of the individual seamstresses.
“See, that’s why it’s so hard to explain, the different shapes of the coats or how they’re sewn,” says Dias. She tends towards fitted parkas herself, with delicate lines and vibrant materials. You can spot one of her creations thanks to the lace she incorporates into her designs. “My mother never used to use stuff like that.”
Details, like whether the sleeves are curved or straight, how fitted the parka is, is it long or short, often come down to preference and trend. For instance, many of the men’s parkas Dias makes are shorter, with elastic at the wrists and hem. In the Baffin region, they tend to be longer. She’s not quite sure why, whether it’s just the fashion or if it has to do with a specific activity of the wearers (for instance, hunting parkas are generally pull-over style, because zippers may freeze to the wearer). She, like a lot of seamstresses, talks to her customers and adapts to what they need.
“I’ll have a thicker coat made where I know the people are going to be walking a lot. I’ll add an extra layer. There are some customers that will want it a little thinner because they say they’re just in and out of the truck so they don’t need it that thick.”
Many modern northern parkas are made of three layers: a Hollofill lining in one of three weights (the more ounces, the warmer the parka will be), a Thinsulate liner or other layer that’s wind and waterproof, and finally the outer layer, where the maker can work their magic.
In the Yukon and western Arctic, duffle rules the day. Lea-Ann Dorval, the brains and stitching fingers behind Skookum Bush Gear in Whitehorse, says the blanket-like material was all the rage when she was growing up on the Alaska Highway outside of Fort St. John, but today it’s not easy to come by. “Most of our parkas were hand- me-downs from someone else, but I know that they came from the Eaton’s catalogue and the Hudson's Bay catalogue, and they were specifically made by northern women who were hired to do piecework for the catalogue,” she says. She also still has a parka made for her by a friend when Dorval lived in Resolute Bay, 35 years ago.
Most of them were in the ubiquitous Yukon Parka design popularized by the Yukon Indian Arts and Crafts Society (later the Yukon Indian Arts and Crafts Co-operative Ltd.) throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s. In the late 1970s, the Society opened a series of craft shops in Yukon communities. Dorval remembers being able to see the parkas being cut out in the back of the Whitehorse store, and by 1985 around 500 people were involved producing everything from slippers and mittens to parkas, mainly from home. The Yukon Parka was a little different than its eastern Arctic cousins, with a water repellent outer shell and a wool duffle inner coat. Brenda Chambers, one of the employees at the time, lent herself as a model and her body proportions helped shape the parka pattern. Each Yukon Parka was trimmed with leather appliques with northern images, like polar bears and sled dogs, with fur around the hood and hem.
“Other than colour you don’t see a difference between the men and the women. They’re straight down, they’re not curved in or darted,” says Dorval. “They were way more utilitarian. And straighter down, like a Canada Goose parka.”
Tucked away in the underbelly of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife are even more parkas, some snuggled in the freezer to protect their fur.
Karen Wright-Fraser flips over the hem of a parka to show the underside of the embroidered trim, where the tiny stitches that went into creating this example of Delta Braid are barely visible. “It’s like pieces and pieces of bias tape, with little tiny pieces folded under, they make beautiful designs,” she says. She’s the community liaison coordinator at the museum, and also a seamstress. “The techniques were pretty much forgotten,” she says. That’s changing. She’s seeing an upswing of people re-learning the skills their grandmothers had. “The young people, a lot of them weren’t interested before, now I notice that a lot of them are picking things up because they’re seeing beautiful things on Facebook. And they’re going to their grannies and learning. They’re having pride,” she says. Even more are learning online, and going to online groups for support and help. “There are so many different ways, then you choose the way that works for you! You’re finding your own path.”
She pulls out another coat, this one a vibrant red with shiny, smooth embroidered flowers. “Isn’t it beautiful? That’s skill. It looks like it was done on a machine, but it’s by hand,” she says, pointing out the middle of each flower, decorated with dozens of French knots. “People learned this from the nuns. Before that, we used to use moose hair, porcupine quills, seed beads. On the quills they used to use geometric designs, then the floral things came from the nuns and the missionaries.”
Now, that’s what distinguishes many Dene or Gwich’in parkas: the beautiful embroidery dancing across the hems, the yokes and the cuffs. Many examples came out of the Inuvik Sewing Centre, which through the 1960s and 1980s produced parkas, many featuring intricate Delta Braid and fabric figures. Those coats can still be spotted today, with their signature Inuvik tag. Even more exquisite work can be seen on Spence Bay parkas, produced by women in what is now Taloyoak, Nunavut. Former politician Monique Begin writes in her book Ladies Upstairs!: My Life in Politics and After about spotting, on a 1983 trip to the Arctic, “the gorgeous embroidered parkas they make, which at that time will sell in West Germany for $1,500 apiece!”
Especially in bright fuchsia, a colour Wright-Fraser says is a favourite with older Dene men. “If you go downtown right now... The elder traditional men they’re going to have fuchsia,” she says. “The younger men will say 'Don’t you dare put that on my coat, some people are going to think I’m feminine,’ but that’s what they want. Old Dene men, they just love that fuchsia colour.”
You can however still glimpse strips of red on many parkas made in the NWT today. “Deline, Aklavik, McPherson, they always put this red piece of fabric around the zipper. I believe it comes from way back when they used to use red ochre on the seams. And that red ochre was to keep bad spirits away or to keep good luck to the person wearing it.”
The materials may have changed over time, but the science has not. Especially when it comes to the fur trim.
“The traditional clothing system developed and used by the Inuit is the most effective cold weather clothing developed to date,” found a 2004 study by Aline Cotel, Raymond Golingo, Jill Oakes and Rick Riewe on the effect of Inuit fur parka ruffs on facial heat transfer.
The study placed sunburst style hoods, no hoods and military-style parka hoods into a wind tunnel to see what happens under extreme temperatures. In the wind, friction forms a collision of molecules next to the skin called the boundary layer—this layer insulates the skin, and the thicker the boundary layer, the better it works. Fur creates a thicker boundary layer by changing how air flows across the face—especially in the sunburst style, which moves air in a specific way other shapes don’t, and in natural fur. “The sunburst fur ruff design is truly a remarkable ‘time-tested’ design,” the study found.
Natural fur has hairs in a variety of lengths, changing how the air flows, protecting you even more. The most effective fur for this according to the study? Wolverine.
Which surprises no one making parkas. Wolverine, which doesn't form ice crystals, has long been used to trim hoods in the North, alongside wolf, fox and other animals.
“It’s so much warmer! I had a fake fur before, you’ll just freeze your face with that," says Dias.
As frequently as you’ll see custom-made parkas in the North, the streets of Yellowknife, Whitehorse and Iqaluit are also filled with the ubiquitous Canada Goose. But the company is paying attention to those traditional-inspired designs. Last year, Canada Goose launched Project Atigi (the Inuktitut word for parka) with the first round of 14 seamstresses from four Inuit regions—Inuvialuit, Nunatsiavut, Nunavut, and Nunavik—creating traditionally inspired parkas using Canada Goose materials. Part two, already underway, will showcase 100 parkas made by 20 designers, each commissioned to create a collection of five pieces. Proceeds from each parka will go to Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
The first time around, Dias was approached but declined to participate. “It just felt like they were wanting my pattern, so I wasn’t really interested in giving out my pattern to a big known company,” she says. “And I noticed some of those coats... It’s more a Canada Goose type of coat. It’s not their own.”
It’s true, with their fluffy-down filling, the Project Atigi parkas are substantially bulkier than the slim-fitting parkas currently on-trend in Nunavut. But others saw it as an opportunity for appreciation outside of the Arctic, instead of appropriation.
“That is something that is really exciting and I’m happy that they did that,” says Gross. She says it’s a good thing when southerners see the talents of northern seamstresses, whether by buying directly from artists like Dias or through Canada Goose drawing attention to Inuit designs.
“Around the world I think there’s a lot of people that still think of us as ‘Eskimos,’ people who live out in iglus,” she says, something “we can hopefully change through talking about this and sharing who we are through our culture. I think it’s a thing that people should be proud of.”
That’s the goal of the Cambridge exhibit, which doesn’t have a timeline for when the parkas will be on display (although Gross says if it hits the 10-year mark they might need to swap it out).
Projects like the exhibit, as well as numerous classes across the North teaching people how to make parkas, she says, are a way for people to “learn what our ancestors learned over thousands of years and to pass that on to the next generation.”
That’s what Dorval wants to see as well. She’d eventually like to pass her business torch to one of the people she’s been teaching to make jackets and parkas. “I’d like to keep it in the Yukon. Because I don’t want these jackets to ever be made in China, you know?”
For Dias, she’s happy as long as her parkas make the wearer happy, whether that’s on Bloor Street in Toronto, Franklin Avenue in Yellowknife, or walking the road to Apex in Iqaluit.
“They look great in them and feel great in them, so it makes me happy to know that.”
That’s a feeling Wright-Fraser hopes people remember when they look at parkas, whether ancient or modern—a feeling born out of the skill of the maker, and the time they dedicated to make something not just warm but beautiful. “It’s like you’re proud of your skill that you have,” she says. The time dedicated to making something useful and beautiful was a way to show respect and mark your family as good providers. Even today, when people have nine-to-five jobs and free time is scarce, making a hand- made item carries a different value than just buying it from the store. “There’s more to it than them just walking with a beautiful parka. It was made with absolute love.”