Object in Focus: Arctic amautis (mothers’ parkas)

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A very special kind of parka is made and worn by Inuit mothers. Amautis are parkas that can carry babies and keep them warm, while freeing up a mother’s hands. The baby is carried in a pocket, amaut, in the Inuit language, made below the hood. The shoulders are made loosely fitting so that the mother can move the baby to her breast for feeding without removing the child from the snug parka.

A woman is dressed in a amaut parka, carrying her child in a hood-like pocket on the back. The parka is made of off-white material with pink and purple trimming.
Sheila Katsak with her daughter, demonstrating the amaut. Mittimatalik, Nunavut, 2019.

Women make these baby-carrying garments for themselves or family members, drawing design inspiration from the styles emerging from nearby Inuit communities, contemporary fashion and the clothing of past relatives. The long curved ‘tail’ in the back is common but varies in shape. Seamstresses also experiment with brightly-coloured trim and hood sizes.

A black and white photograph showing a woman carrying a baby in her amautis. The woman is shown in profile, turned to the right . She wears a thick coat and has braided hair. Her baby is seen in the hood, facing the viewer, and wears a coat and hat.
Photograph of Inuit woman carrying a baby in her amauti. Baffin Island, Canada. 1901–1913. Photo by Rev. Edgar WT Greenshield.

Amautis have been made and used by Inuit mothers for centuries and they have captured the attention and curiosity of southerners for almost as long.

In one of the earliest European representations, John White (about 1540–93) who was a English colonial governor and artist, drew an Inuit woman wearing an amauti. In 1579, the woman, named Arnaq, and her son Nulaq, were captured by Martin Frobisher’s crew members during their violent expedition to southern Iqaluit, on southern Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island). It is perhaps not too far-fetched to imagine Nulaq finding some comfort in his mother’s amaut when they were taken to England as hostages, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth I.

Drawing showing a woman dressed in a brown amautis parka,. A child can be seen peering out from her hood. She wears thigh length brown boots.
John White, Arnaq with her son Nutaaq. 1585–93.

While Arctic children and toddlers certainly have their own clothing to keep them warm and give them independence, such as the below ‘onesie’ from Igloolik (Nunavut, northern Canada) or the Chukchi coveralls with reindeer ears, depicted in the below print, Inuit babies and toddlers spend a considerable amount of their early outside life, against their mother’s back in an amauti. In this position, they sleep, keep warm and learn.

An etching showing a woman and child hand in hand, walking towards the viewer. They both wear thick fur coats and boots. The coats are a yellow brown colour.
Clothing of a Samoyede woman and child subject to Russia in 1768. After Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’ Auteroche. Etching, 1768.
The suit is made of brown fur with white trimming. There are ties on the sleeves.
Toddler’s all-in-one suit and hood made from caribou-fawn fur, Canada, 1960s.

Andrew Qappik’s work There’s Another One shows a busy mother ice fishing, using both hands in her pursuit, while a very curious and engaged child peaks out from the hood. The child learns as they watch, absorbing information about fishing techniques but also about the time of year to be ice fishing, the wind and the company of dogs.

Drawing depicting a woman ice fishing with child in her amauti, sitting next to a dog. The woman holds a jigging stick and fish spear, Three fish are lying on the ice. Two swimming fish looking at the line are depicted under the ice.
Andrew Qappik, There’s Another One, 2012. Coloured stencil drawing. © Andrew Qappik.

Sheila Katsak, co-founder of the Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective (a group set up to document and record skin-processing and sewing skills in Mittimatalik, Canada), shares her personal experience of choosing amauti designs and sewing and wearing these multifunctional garments. ‘Making my Amautis’ is an extract from the book accompanying the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate.

Sheila Katsak demonstrates how babies and toddlers are placed in and removed from the amauti. Mittimatalik, Nunavut. 2019.

‘Amautis have always been part of my life. Growing up, women around me all wore them. I was eighteen when I had my first daughter. As my due date approached, my mother grew increasingly worried that she didn’t have a pattern to fit my small frame. Her friend Alice had a pattern from her late aunt. Mom and Alice worked together on my amauti: it was a beautiful white one with red and pink ribbon trim and red fox-fur trim around the hood. Alice taught me how to weave sashes using matching wool. I was thankful for that lesson. I had always admired my grandmother Angutainuk’s sashes and Alice taught me that design.’

‘With my second child, I sewed my own amauti. I was still young, twenty- four, and I had all kinds of design visions. I wanted it to be stylish. Modern. I thought dark navy fabric with contrasting white fur would be beautiful. My mother taught me to cut and sew pattern pieces. Since then, I have made so many more amautis! Since my oldest daughter started having babies, I’ve been experimenting with different styles. I am never satisfied! The design I envision and the actual making of them always differ. Now my daughter is learning to make her own.’

A photo of Sheila Katsak. She is photographed from behind, demonstrating how to wear the amautis parka. The child is shown in the pocket on the back. The back of the amautis drops down to the back of the calf. The amautis is white with purple and pink trimming.
Sheila Katsak carries her daughter in her amauti. Image courtesy of the Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective.

‘For all my four children I’ve had different winter and summer amautis. Making the winter amauti I have right now, I returned to a traditional design, white fabric with a long tail. It’s my best work in terms of design! I drew inspiration for the trim from a photo of my grandmother Agalakti’s amauti circulating on social media, using burgundy, two shades of pink and a black ribbon to accentuate the traditional sharp lines of the tail. I saw Agalakti’s photo after I had begun sewing, so I had to undo some of the stitches. I also drew inspiration from a used amauti I had that was made in Clyde River. It had a tail and trim with sharp accentuated lines and corners, a gradual shoulder drop and narrow cuffs that I thought would make it very warm, and a big hood. I sewed dark fox-fur trim on the hood to contrast with the white, and I wove a matching sash in the manner that Alice taught me, using my grandmother Angutainuk’s design. The hood on this pattern is so big! When I carry my baby, she sways when she stands. Not like my first amauti made for me that kept my baby upright. With this one, I have to keep adjusting the hood. It is awkward to wear. My small shoulders and frame are not made for it. Still, I love this amauti and my baby has grown accustomed to it. And designing this amauti made me more confident in my sewing.’

A photo of Sheila Katsak. She is , demonstrating how to wear the amautis parka. The child is shown peering from the pocket. The amautis is white with purple and pink trimming.
Sheila Katsak carries her daughter in her amauti. Image courtesy of the Mittimatalik Arnait Miqsuqtuit Collective.

‘I’ve relied on amautis for all my years raising children. They let me pack my babies and go. Babies get excited when amautis come out. It means a trip to the stores, the health centre, or just out visiting. When I was expecting my first child, it was my mother who knew I needed one. She knew that, for mothers, amautis are functional and required in raising children. I will keep on sewing amautis for my daughters and teaching them how to sew.’

Photograph of an amauti parka in the exhibition. The amautis is a cream or off white. It has the characteristic large hood and tail at the back.  There is dramatic lighting in the exhibition with a dark blue colour to the wall in the background. There are strong shadows.
Amauti parka, made by Madeline Auksaq, Iglulik, Nunavut, 1984, on display in the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate.

Explore more content related to the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate here.

‘Making my Amautis’ is an extract from the book accompanying the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate, published by Thames & Hudson in collaboration with the British Museum. Buy your copy of the beautifully illustrated book, named one of the books of the year by the Times, here.

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by

Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald

AKO Foundation

The post Object in Focus: Arctic amautis (mothers’ parkas) first appeared on The British Museum Blog.