National costumes of Greenland

National costumes of Greenland

It is possible to see a colorful display of the national costumes from Greenland during every official occasion such as national holidays, the beginning or end of the school year, weddings, funerals or church confirmation services and at official sessions of the national parliament, the Inatsisartut. When viewed in more detail, we can see links with Bohemia and Moravia. You don't believe it?

After many years of study and research, we know that the national costumes of Greenland gradually arose after the arrival of missionaries from the Moravian Brethren in the territory of Greenland after the Battle of White Mountain when the Unitas Fratrum church was dispersed practically all over the world. These exiles initially concentrated on Herrnhut in Germany under the protection of Count Nicholas Zinzerdorf, but they later left this small town which is located near the northern border of Bohemia to take up missionary posts practically all over the world: the Caribbean, America, Africa or Asia. They arrived in Greenland in 1733.


Prior to the arrival of Europeans in Greenland, the Inuit (the Eskimos) merely wore clothing sewn from sealskin, reindeer or fox skin or from polar bear fur. No other materials were available for garment making in this land of snow and ice. Fabrics were first introduced to Greenland with the arrival of the first Europeans after the 17th century. In ancient history, the women decorated the leather clothing with shells, amulets and beads which they carved from bone and strung into necklaces. Sometimes they also embroidered the leather clothing with them.


The composition of the wonderful national costumes of Greenland is more or less the same in all its areas. Only some small details and in particular the colors are different.


The standard parts of the national costume include a silk, satin or, in rare cases, woolen surcoat. The neck is closed with a narrow leather collar and the sleeves also have a leather trim. Practical wristbands are distinctive on the women and they protect them against the cold. The most dominant part of the costume is worn over the fabric surcoat (essentially a blouse with long sleeves) and it consists of an outer garment made from colored seed beads sewn onto fabric.


The trousers (takisut) are made from fine sealskin. Around the waist there is a belt made of black leather with the hair removed and two decorative stripes are sewn onto the front sides of the thighs. This type of decoration is called avittat and it is usually further emphasized by means of the inclusions of small colored strips of leather.


The conspicuously large kamik shoes are sewn from sealskin, bleached and have the hair removed from the skin. The kamiks of older women can be dark blue or yellow. Younger women can wear red kamiks. The majority of snow-white kamiks are decorated with decorative strips with a floral design. Where does the floral design come from?

From the area of Moravia! The idea of color differentiation is ascribed to the Moravian Brethren missionaries who recommended that the women should also plait ribbons in their hair which would show their age and marital status by means of the color. Kamiks made from polar bear skin are only worn with the national costume in the northernmost areas.


The national folk costume of Greenland is the only women's folk costume in the world which gives preference to trousers over a skirt. The traditional woman's folk costume has three basic regional variations:

1/ The Thule area (the northernmost area of western Greenland) - Arnatuut

2/ Western Greenland - Kalaallisut

3/ Eastern Greenland – Tunumiutuut.


The male folk costume is also elegant, but not as colorful. It consists of black or dark blue trousers and an anorak sewn from strong, high quality canvas with a hood and a sewn on breast pocket and two other pockets on the side of the jacket. The shoes, kamiks, are shorter than the women's ones and they have a wide decorative cuff at the top.


The color of the men's anorak is usually white, but to a lesser degree also blue or green.


The most substantial and most distinctive part of the folk costume is a stringing made of glass seed beads sewn into various patterns onto fabric which is usually thick silk or satin so that it can bear the significant weight of the glass seed beads. For a long time, it was a mystery to us how these glass seed beads had got to Greenland, but we eventually came upon the answer.


Europeans began to penetrate the largest island in the world after the 17th century. Colorful beads were first brought by the Dutch crews of whaling boats and they were later followed mainly by Danish and German merchants. They offered the beads in return for assistance during whaling, harvesting blubber, whalebone, the skins of the white and blue foxes and so-called "ivory" which involved walrus tusks and the rare narwhal tusks.


The very beginnings of the production of glass seed beads can be found in Venice, Italy in the internationally renowned glass kilns on the Island of Murano. In the 19th century, a railway line began to be built in the environs of Tanvald and Jablonec nad Nisou. Several workers from Italy, who were well acquainted with the process of glass making, also came to build the track. The even knew the mysteries of the production of colored glass beads (rocailles).  A number of small glass works were established in the wider environs of the small mountain town of Zásada.

Their production programs involved the production of rocaille rods as the basic semi-product for subsequent chopping, complicated firing and honing in drums. This resulted in seed beads in a wide range of color shades and in various sizes. The distribution was first undertaken by local carters and according to the records they delivered goods to all of Europe and to Asia. Later, the originally expensive distribution was taken over by German traders who took delivery of the products directly in Jablonec nad Nisou.
The transactions most frequently headed to Altona in Hamburg, the port which was the gateway to the maritime transportation of every type of goods to distant countries.

Altona lies on the right-hand bank of the Elbe. From 1640 to 1864, Altona was under the administration of the Danish monarchy. Altona was a highly significant port city under the Danish Monarchy and a place from where ships with cargoes of colorful seed beads sailed to the Caribbean, as well as to Greenland.

The strict gospel of the Danish Lutheran Church and the Moravian Brothers did not overly support "worldly vanities", including the decoration of clothing. Despite that, however, the popularity of creating their own folk costume cointoinued to grow among the people of Greenland.


Such was the journey of the "Czech seed bead" all the way to the land of snow and ice .