Date of this Version
Textiles as Cultural Expressions: Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–27, 2008, Honolulu, Hawaii
Dealing with the various and extreme weather conditions in Alaska is a serious matter. Coastal Native Alaskans have been surviving in these severe environments for millennia. Without a local general store in which to buy a nice rain slicker, one must be resourceful with what is available. Between the hot summers and frigid winters are the transition seasons when it rains. Bird skins and fish skins were used extensively to make raincoats but it is the gut skin parka that proved so universal along the coast of Alaska (Fig. 1). From village to village different preparations, stitching methods and artistic styles are apparent and expressed in the embellishments that define the region, the culture and the function of these beautiful outer garments. For hundreds of years the indigenous people of the circumpolar region survived extreme conditions on their ingenuity and creativity. Using the animals, birds and fish of the region, they made garments of fur, skin, and intestine. It is quite understandable how fur would be used, even how fish skin and bird skin would be used as a waterproof garment. But it took some creative thinking to transform animal intestine from a food source to a garment. By comparison to any of the other garments used for weather protection, the gut parka (raincoat) was and still is the most effective against wet weather, and was once prized by the Russian occupants as overall the best protection against the elements. Gut parkas are constructed using the intestines of sea mammals or bear and are worn in kayaks, tide pool collecting, dance and celebration. Embellishment is achieved using hair, fur, leather, yarn, cloth, feathers and beaks – materials that are either resourced in each region or gathered through trade. Because of its practicality the gut parka continued to be made long after the sewing of bird skin garments, esophagus and sea lion flipper boots and hats for either ceremonial or utilitarian purposes.
In the western, non-Native tradition, gut was and still is used in making sausage. Casings are stuffed with a variety of foods to make the sausages, but can also be eaten alone like chitlins. To use gut as a fabric material, special preparations are needed. It must be thoroughly cleaned inside and out using scraping tool. The inside of the tube is cleaned by pulling it inside out. The ulu (the semi-lunar ‘woman’s knife’) is often the tool of choice for scraping (Fig. 2). Once cleaned the gut is then blown up, tied at the ends and stretched out straight (Fig. 3).
Blown gut requires only a short time to dry, but environmental conditions will alter dramatically the color and flexibility of the final product. The variations in temperature, darkness and wind, combined with duration of exposure to these conditions are the major factors that affect the gut fabric. Gut will become opaque and white when prepared in the most extreme conditions of cold, darkness and wind. This product is often referred to as ‘winter gut’, and by some by the inaccurate term ‘bleached’. The more yellow, non-flexible gut is prepared in less severe weather conditions and is called ‘summer gut’. The final step in preparing the gut is to cut it lengthwise to produce long ribbon-like materials that will be stitched together into a garment.