Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
January 10, 2022
The Sheldon Jackson Museum January Artifacts of the Month are two Inupiaq sinew combs and a sample of parka sewing materials, including fine two-ply thread, caribou sinew, and very finely cut dyed sealskin (from left to right, top to bottom: SJ-II-W14, 13; SJ-II-X-9-F, D, and G).
The two combs are made of bone and were likely collected by Sheldon Jackson in 1890 from the area of the Kobuk River.
The thread, caribou sinew, and finely cut sealskin were likely collected from northern Alaska. Documentation about their source or provenance is minimal.
The artifacts of the month highlight a small part of the intensive process traditionally involved in making clothing, footwear, and garments.
Alaska Native peoples have been living sustainable lives for thousands of years. Throughout history, they have made and repaired garments, footwear, bags, and other items using needle and thread. The types of needles, sewing implements, and thread have varied, depending on the materials and resources available locally or through trade and the techniques that developed.
After western contact, Alaska Native peoples gradually traded for more manufactured materials, such as metal needles, and adopted new technologies, such as sewing machines. The essential relationship between the people and animals who provided them with food, shelter, and clothing continued, and old and newer technologies combined.
Before the introduction of commercially made thread, Inupiat traditionally made thread out of sinew. According to Ernest S. Burch, caribou sinew was preferred, but almost any species of mammal or bird would work. The sinew was dried and beaten with a maul to loosen the fibers. The fibers were then divided with a small comb made of ivory or bone (similar to the artifact of the month combs) and cleaned. Two to four strands were twisted or braided together to make thread. The finished product was wrapped around a wooden, bone or ivory shuttle-like object, similar to shuttles used to make nets.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum January Artifacts of the Month will be exhibited until January 31. The museum has nearly two dozen sinew combs in its collection (most are Yup’ik and made of wood and bone), nearly thirty parkas, and many Inupiaq sewing implements. You can see them Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am-4 pm. General admission is $7, $6 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
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