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The Sheldon Jackson Museum June 2024 Artifact of the Month is a pair of Iñupiaq Denim Mittens

by LAM Webmaster on 2024-06-04T15:59:09-08:00 in Artifact of the Month, Sheldon Jackson Museum | 0 Comments

denim mittens with beaded black velvet cuffsThe Sheldon Jackson Museum June artifact of the month is a pair of Iñupiaq denim mittens (SJ-II-J-85).  Although we have little information about the mittens and do not know their maker, they're a fine example of using available materials and repurposing fabrics.

The mittens were donated to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Zehner of Woodburn, Oregon in September of 1990. The Zehners had purchased a home from Einer Olsen, who left the mittens with the house. According to a letter written by Mr. Zehner, Olsen was from Norway and had moved to the Nome area in his youth. He spent his summers in Alaska and winters on a small farm and owned a store “in Northern Alaska and sold to the natives and some boats that stopped. A native gave the mukluks and mittens for something in his store.” There is a notation in pencil at the bottom of the letter that reads, “P.S. I told Einer about these things and he said keep them. Their [sic] yours. I’m sure Einer would have been pleased about this.”

The hand-sewn mittens are made from a variety of materials and probably date back between 1940 and 1950. The denim was repurposed from either jeans or a jacket and has thumb and thumb gussets made from a different piece of denim. The inside of the mittens are lined with white knit wool (?), except for the cuffs, which are lined with a cotton calico fabric, possibly from a flour sack. The calico is also used on the neck straps, which are frayed and no longer entirely intact. The exterior of each cuff is sewn with black velvet, and a very deteriorated strip of seal hide trim joins the velvet and denim fabrics. The top and bottom of the cuffs have three rows of clear seed beads. The central row of seed beads has a silver double leaf or vine design on either side of a star shape beaded with red and blue faceted seed beads. A number of beads are missing from each of the mittens, especially from the underside cuff of the left mitten on the right top leaf.

Despite the damage, they are beautifully made and tell a larger story, even if we don't know the identity of the maker. They highlight how an indigenous woman living in a more remote area of Northern Alaska could make excellent use of materials she had to produce functional, high-quality garments in an inventive and creative way. They are also a fine example of a seamstress combining contemporary fabrics and traditional beadwork.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum cares for twenty-one mittens. Of those, twelve are catalogued as Iñupiaq or likely Iñupiaq. Only one set is made from denim and clearly repurposed clothing, which makes the June artifact of the month especially interesting.

You can see the artifact of the month and many other examples of mittens and Iñupiaq material culture at the museum. The Sheldon Jackson Museum is currently open Monday-Saturday, 9 am - 4 pm and Sunday, 1 - 4:30 pm, closed holidays. General admission is $9, $8 for seniors, and free for ages 18 and under and active military and their families.

Nelson, Edward William. The Eskimo About Bering Strait. Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington, 1983
Fienup-Riordan. The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks. Seattle, Washington. University of Washington Press, 1996

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