Redesign of sealskin Strengthening the Greenlandic cultural textile heritage

EAFT long-time member and former Board member, terminologist Susanne Lervad recounts interesting work done in Greenland in the following article

In April 2019, the project Redesign of sealskin coordinated by Rosa Rossen at the University of Nuuk held a workshop in Nuuk about sealskin clothing of the past and today. We examined historical and fashionable sealskin before a practical workshop on sewing led by Line Rumshult from the Design School Kolding. Line directs the skin and fur workshop at the Design School. Rita Ottesen, the textile Great Greenland sponsored the workshop with a donation of 50 skins. The workshop also benefited from the expertise of two people from the commercial tannery in Southern Greenland: Rita Ottesen, textile technician and Aviaja Holm Jensen from the Visiting Centre.

First, we studied early sealskin clothing at the National Museum in Nuuk. The designers then interpreted this historical material to inspire new and more current designs. The result of this process was four very different outfits which played homage to the textile heritage of Greenland. These were on show at the Greenland House in Copenhagen during ‘Kulturnatten’ in October 2019 and have since been exhibited at the Open House Day at the Design School Kolding. This was suitable finale to the project initiated by the Design School and the Centre for Textile Research (CTR) in Copenhagen, where Rosa Rossen was visiting scholar in 2018.

The Greenlandic seal is intimately linked to Greenlandic culture. Practices for the preparation and use of sealskin have been communicated through the generations and among the Greenlandic people for very long time. Current practice fits well with sustainability and respect for nature - the animals themselves, the principles of hunting, and the need for food and survival in a harsh climate. These are characterised by a focus on local production and minimal waste of resources in the design process and a close interaction between handicraft, design tradition and those who wear the finished garments.

We also studied the language and terminology of sealskin in, for example, for the construction of kayaks and manuals on national dress which use vocabularies adopted by the Greenlandic Language Council.

My focus in the project was how to ensure quality control in term identification and appropriate documentation of the subject by bringing my experience as a terminologist and textile researcher, specifically with previous projects on multilingual skin terminology at CTR. I facilitated the compilation of vocabularies and term lists and then gathered and provided the documentation in Greenlandic for use in schools, museums and other cultural institutions. 

Today, there is a trend for sustainability in fashion and dress. In this context, an important challenge is to find substitutes which will help diminish the use of plastics and similarly environmentally destructive materials.

The demand for sustainable clothing is rising and the hunters’ culture in Greenland should be able to exploit the natural world better than in the recent past by learning about practices their older ancestors knew. The Greenlandic people use everything from the animal (meat, skin, guts as well as the skin) and see them all as the treasures from the sea.

Susanne Lervad, terminologist, Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen.

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