Tiny Records of Life

Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center

Tiny Records of Life

The Arctic Museum’s collection includes 92 mostly unsigned embroideries (household items such as table runners, tablecloths, and napkins) created by Labrador Inuit between 1940 and the 1970s.
Embroidery of a town

The colorful embroideries feature inukuluit, tiny human figures, involved in a variety of traditional outdoor activities set against Labrador’s landscapes and icescapes. These beautifully executed textiles are distinct among Canadian, Greenlandic, and Alaskan Inuit artistic traditions, and up until now had never been described or studied.

In March 2018, Director Susan A. Kaplan, Curator Genevieve LeMoine, and Curatorial Intern Katie Donlan began visiting communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, to develop a collaborative project around this unique embroidery tradition. They traveled to Nain with photographs of the collection and invited people to share ideas about collaborative projects they would like to develop around these tiny records of Inuit life.

During community meetings people discussed scenes on the embroideries and shared their own connections to the tradition. Several people recalled their mothers embroidering in the same distinctive inukulukstyle and showed the museum staff embroidered pieces that were passed down to them. One woman recalled a time when “every woman knew how to embroider.”

Not only was the style of embroidery familiar to people in Nain, so too were some of the landscapes meticulously stitched in the backgrounds. People tried to decipher which Nunatsiavut community might be represented on a piece based on the buildings, the density of trees, or the icy treeless expanse depicted. A backdrop on one table runner captured interest for its distinct mountainous horizon identified as Mount Sophia, a mountain across the bay from Nain. These discussions revealed the wealth of geographic and historic community information embedded in the embroideries.

The Arctic Museum has secured funding from Kane Lodge Foundation, Inc. and the Tradition & Transition Research Partnership, an initiative of Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Nunatsiavut Government, for the project’s next phase. This time, at the urging of local seamstresses, the museum will visit three communities with embroideries from the collection, so the workmanship can be closely scrutinized. This collaborative work is part of an initiative to help document and celebrate the history of artistic endeavors of Labrador Inuit and increase northern communities’ access to the Arctic Museum’s holdings.