Fish skin clothing and gear

Salmon skin parka 1

Marlene Nielsen (Yup’ik) with her newest fish skin parka. Photo: Marlene Nielsen, Facebook.

Recently Marlene Nielsen (Yup’ik) posted a photograph to Facebook showing her latest creation, a fish skin parka.  I had heard of salmon skin being used for moccasins but had never really heard or seen much more about this.  After contacting Marlene about reposting her photos, I did a bit of research and there’s actually quite a history of fish skin clothing and gear ranging from the northern Canada to Asia.  In the process I also found the following article that gives more information about the historical uses and methods of producing fish skin textiles.The following is excerpted from: “Fish Skin as a Textile Material in Alaska Native Cultures,” by Nadia Jackinsky-Sethi, First American Art, Fall 2014

Historical Uses of Fish Skins

Accounts by ethnographers and collectors in Alaska in the late-19th and early-20th centuries record that Alaska Native people from throughout the state used the skins of diverse fish species as an important leather resource. In the late 1880s, Smithsonian collector Edward Nelson observed, “On the Lower Yukon very poor people utilized even the skins of salmon for making their frocks.”

Salmon skin parka 2

Photo by Marlene Nielsen, with a 19th century version of salmon skin parka.

Similar observations were made during the same time period by the collector Reverend Sheldon Jackson who noted “the Natives [of Kodiak Island] made shirts out of the skins of codfish and salmon.”

Working in the interior part of the state in the early 20th century, anthropologist Cornelius Osgood recorded that the Deg Hit’an Athabascan people created fine fish skin garments and that “practically every adult has several fish skin bags.”

Fish skin bag 1

Fish skin bag. Photo:

In the 1950s, Frederica de Laguna found that the Tlingit people from the Yakutat area still constructed halibut skin bags including larger examples that were up to three feet in height that were used as storage bags for clothing, furs, and food, as well as smaller examples that were used to hold seal oil or sewing supplies.

According to Willie Beans (Yup’ik) of Mountain Village (1909–1998), “I myself wore [fish skin boots] for long time travelling all over. Your feet don’t get cold and they are waterproof… they were very light.”

Aside from their waterproof, wind-proof, strong, and lightweight qualities, using fish skin as a textile material had several other benefits. Frank Andrew from Kwigillingok (1917–2006) describes fish skin garments as versatile. When out in the wilderness, hunters might use a fish skin parka as a garment during the day and then reuse it as a tent at night. “When they were going to use them, they stuck the ice pick in the ground after clearing the area, and they placed the hood over the ice picks top, loosely tying the fastener on so that the air could circulate. And they pulled the sleeves inside. Then they put weights around the inside bottom and used it as a shelter.”

Fish skin boots 1

Fish skin boots from the Yukon delta, with white patches where the fins had been. Frank Andrew said: “I never took off my fish skin boots during winter, and my peers were probably the same way.” W. D. Johns, 1900, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Seattle 7142

Marlene Nielsen of Kokhanok remembers that in emergencies fish skin clothing could be eaten. “There are a lot of stories in our culture about famine, and that’s why Mom always says when we eat smoked fish we should save the skin, because that’s what used to save people a long time ago. People could survive by eating pieces of their clothing.”Fish skins also had symbolic use. According to Cornelius Osgood, salmon skin cradles were used for a baby born after the death of another child because “it is believed that the salmon skin will keep away the evil spirits.”

Wearing fish skin and other animal skin clothing created a connection with and honored the animal. Many Alaska Natives believe that using the harvest well encourages the animals to return so that they can continue to sustain the community. In addition, wearing fish skin or having the ability to work with fish skins can be a marker of identity, reinforcing a person’s relationship to his or her culture.

Although Alaska Native people continue to use fish as an important food supply, by the mid-20th century the use of fish skin clothing dramatically declined. With a few exceptions, fish skin boots and parkas were replaced by rubber boots and commercially manufactured rain gear. As Alutiiq artist Coral Chernoff from Kodiak Island explains, “We didn’t have to make gut or salmon skin parkas because we could just go to the store and buy them.” Marlene Nielsen described another reason why the practice of fish skin sewing may have declined: “People don’t want to take the time or do not have the time to spend. It is a very time consuming process to work the skin. People don’t have a lot of time to do this; we have jobs, we have to take care of children and cook.”

Processing Fish Skins

Fish skin ulu 1

Coral Chernoff’s ulu and leathered salmon skins, 2012. Photo by Wayde Carroll

For those who find the time to process and sew fish skins, they can attest that the time-consuming process requires patience and skill. After removing the fish head, tail, and entrails, the meat is separated from the skin, and the remaining fatty parts are scraped from the skin using a dull ulu, a spoon, bone implement, or seashell. Care has to be taken to remove all of the flesh without puncturing the skin. Historically, the skins would be soaked in urine for one or two days to remove excess oils. According to Rita Blumenstein, originally from Nelson Island, urine from an unweaned baby was preferred for this purpose.

Fish skin boots 2

Fish skin boots made by Ainu in Japan.

Today artists have modified the technique. Instead of soaking the skins in urine, they use lye or another soap or detergent. Once the skins are clean, they are worked for hours by manual manipulation through massaging and stretching the skins until the fibers break down, and they become pliable and soft. The fish scales may be removed from the outside of the skin but are often retained for both functional and aesthetic purposes. The scales provide beautiful decorative crisscross patterns, and in the case of fish skin boots, help provide traction when walking across the snow, ice, or slippery mud. Some artists color the skin using natural dye made from shredded alder or willow bark, which also helps in the tanning process.

Fish skin gloves 1

Fish skin mittens. Photo:

Others cure the skins by hanging them outside so that they become soft and white, or leave the fish skins their natural color.If a seamstress is not going to use her skins right away, she might keep the fish skins in alcohol solution, which helps to keep the skin color bright. Alternately, she might keep skins in the freezer until they are ready to use or store them dried in a cool and dark place. When ready to use, the fish skins can be rehydrated so that they will not tear when they are sewn. Historically, seamstresses used sinew or thin strips of salmon skins to connect the skins together using a couching stitch, a running stitch, or an overstitch.

The advantage of using these thread materials is that fish skins and sinew will swell when they are wet, and this swelling helps to tighten up the seams to reinforce a garment’s waterproof quality. Although some contemporary artists continue to use these traditional sewing materials, other seamstresses opt to sew with synthetic sinew. On some historical artifacts, seamstresses decorated the seams with ribbons, seashore grass, yarn, hair, or added strips of dyed sea mammal esophagus or leather as welting. These decorations add strength to the seam while also providing embellishment.

Design Conventions

Fish skin parka 1

Anchorage Museum, 2007 Qasperrluk/Fish-skin parka made by Lena Atti of Kwigillingok from twenty-four chum salmon skins. The oval patches cover the places wehre dorsal fins have been removed.

Fish skin artifacts in museum collections demonstrate that Alaska Native seamstresses followed established design conventions. When making parkas, artists often used the outline of the fish as part of the clothing design. In some examples, the fish skins are aligned head to tail, creating an elaborate quilt-like pattern. Seamstresses commonly made clothing with strips of vertical fish skin with contrasting undyed skins sewed next to red-tinted alder bark-dyed skins. On many garments the dorsal fin is removed, and the remaining space is patched using contrasting skin or gut material to create a decorative pattern. In some examples, the fins are left on as decorative elements. Because fish skins will not fray or tear easily, fish skin garments are not typically hemmed, although sometimes decorative fringe is added to the bottom of a garment. Fish skin garments typically have a loose fit. This has several advantages. Loose-fitting clothing allows for air circulation while helping to retain body heat. In addition, loose-fitting clothing could be layered over other garments if needed for additional warmth.

Fish Skin Boots

Fish skin boots were made in a wide variety of designs with both short and tall boots. Seamstresses often attached wide strips of fish skin to the sides of a boot, so that the boot could be securely tied around a person’s ankle (Figure 3). To increase the insulation, the fish skin boots were often worn with woven grass socks. When boots became too worn to wear, they were sometimes recycled and transformed into fish skin bags.

Fish Skin Mittens

Fish skin mittens, occasionally made thumbless, and gloves were worn when paddling or when working with fish nets. One pair of gloves from the Lower Yukon Delta was sewn using contrasting strips of undyed and alder-dyed skins and embellished with fringe around the wrists. Fancy gloves like these may have been used for special occasions or possibly when dancing.

Fish Skin Bags

Fish skin bags were made in a variety of shapes. Some bags served as storage containers for clothing or skins and had drawstrings along the top of the bag to close it. Some small bags were made into a kakivik , or kakiwik (also known as a “housewife”), a bag with a rounded U-shaped top and a pouch at the bottom where a woman kept her needles, thimbles, awls, and other sewing implements. On occasion seamstresses used fish skin in conjunction with other materials such as leather or grass when constructing bags.

Marlene Nielsen (Yup’ik)

Marlene Nielsen from Kokhanok, Alaska, harvests fish year round from Iliamna Lake including dollies, trout, pike, and, salmon. Nielsen is entirely self-taught and uses fish skins to make dolls, mask forms, and earrings. For Nielsen, using fish skin to make art is an extension of the subsistence activities that she takes part in with her family. “We put away at least 200 fish for winter use. We smoke and dry the fish. We try to use the entire animal.” When Nielsen was growing up, the only fish skin artifact that she remembered seeing was a fish skin mask hanging on the wall of a family member’s home. The mask was so old that no one remembered who made it or where it came from. Nielsen decided to start experimenting with using salmon skins to make her own mask forms. “I feel there are not a whole lot of people that do work with fish skin, so I wanted to try to bring it back.” Like Armstrong, Nielsen values teaching what she has learned to her family and others in her community. “I hope that others will learn how to do this, because it is so important that we retain connections to our culture.”

Posted on April 1, 2016, in Warrior Fieldcraft and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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