Weaving together Indigenous expertise and Western science in Arctic clothing

- St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador


In the Canadian Arctic, where temperatures rarely rise above 0 and can dip to −70°C, staying warm is a priority for those living and working there. Typical factory-made garments don’t always provide enough protection from frostbite and hypothermia. But over the centuries, Indigenous Peoples have crafted cozy clothing to battle the elements using natural materials such as sealskin, eiderdown and qiviut (muskox wool fibres).

These renewable resources offer exceptional thermal insulation qualities—and are biodegradable. They have much less impact on landfills and oceans than plastic-based synthetic textiles like polyester, which are becoming a major environmental threat.

A recent study led by the NRC’s Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre through the NRC’s Arctic and Northern Challenge program collected valuable data on the performance of Indigenous-made clothing and will examine possibilities for increased up production to support those working in Arctic environments. These include researchers, maintenance staff, pilots, tour operators and military and coast guard personnel.

The NRC worked with 10 partners, including Parks Canada, the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador and Aurora College Research Institute, as well as with 14 craft producers to examine the potential for using garments made of natural materials that not only better protect wearers from the elements on a day-to-day basis but also help them survive during emergencies.

“Our findings confirmed that Indigenous-made clothing has very high thermal insulation values,” says Anne Barker, Program Director of the NRC’s Arctic and Northern Challenge program. “For example, a full ensemble would allow a physically active person to remain warm in −60°C air.” In addition, these garments would meet or exceed the technical requirements of typical Government of Canada personal protective equipment (PPE).

Fashioning a Canadian blend

Jonathan Power, research council officer, at the NRC’s Ocean, Coastal and River Engineering Research Centre, explains that the initial tests at the NRC’s Thermal Measurement Lab in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, compared standard-issue clothing with Indigenous-made garments. “Using technologies and tools like a thermal manikin ( NEMO ), we measured and compared the amount of insulation provided by individual clothing items and entire ensembles.”

NEMO was tested with outerwear (parkas and pants), hand garments (mittens), footwear (boots and socks) and headgear. Outerwear tests showed that ensembles of Indigenous-only clothing had the highest insulation value of all. For example, hand garments made by Indigenous craft producers could prevent frostbite at a −30°C ambient air temperature. Indigenous-made footwear added 12% to 23% thermal insulation, while head-and-neck garments required less power from NEMO to maintain warmth.

“Our partners contributed local and Indigenous knowledge to our studies,” adds Power. This included identifying the types of clothing that should be assessed, providing insight from Indigenous craft producers and identifying challenges to overcome.

Partners in progress

Seeing clear value in the research for meeting their employees’ daily needs and interest in improved garments, several federal departments and agencies provided funding and other support. This created research efficiencies and helped ensure findings could readily transfer to practical applications.

Parks Canada’s forest green employee uniforms were among the items tested. “The NRC’s expertise in research methodology was essential to the successful completion of this project,” says brand manager Stéphanie Sirois. “We knew that the findings would help us advance both occupational health and safety needs and Indigenous reconciliation.” She points out that most Parks Canada employees in the Far North are Indigenous People, so allowing them to wear familiar, comfortable garments is an important recognition of their ancestral expertise in protecting themselves from the elements.

The research also allowed Parks Canada to help Indigenous suppliers tailor their garments to government purchasing specifications. This carves out opportunities for them to compete for business more effectively and ensure product consistency. As part of the project, the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador identified many garment producers and connected partners in the craft community.

According to Rowena House, Craft Council Executive Director, this initiative is an important road to finding new sales channels—and for selling scientifically tested items that meet the PPE criteria for various government departments.

“Eventually, this will give craft producers greater opportunities to build their businesses, expand their reach into new areas and sell to different demographics,” she says. “In the long term, we see this as a stable, sustainable revenue source for many producers.”

For more information, consult the report Thermal Evaluation of Government of Canada Cold Weather Clothing and Indigenous Garments

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