Northwoods winters can sometimes be unpredictable. Until recently almost all the snow melted away – then, a couple of days ago, a snowstorm moved through and brought several inches of snow with it, along with more winterly temperatures…
It´s time to put on some winter gear again.
It rarely gets very cold (-30F or below) around here these days, but we get periodic thaws almost every winter. Most winter days fall between that temperature range, so an Inuit-style parka would be overkill much of the time.
My equipment of choice during cold conditions consists of a coyote fur parka, fur leggins and a beaver hat. I chose coyote pelts because of their insulative value, light weight, and easy avalability (many people here hunt and trap coyotes, yet they still seem to maintain a thriving population). Pre-contact Natives of this area most likely used woodland caribou (which are now extinct here) for a lot of their winter clothing, much like many of the subarctic tribes did.
Rear view of winter outfit. Notice how the parka shingles over the leggins – shingling layers is an important part of keeping body heat from escaping. The footwear is buckskin mukluks with canvas uppers. Part of the rear flap of the loincloth can be seen between the leggins.
Coyote pelts – like a number of other pelts – do have a distinct advantage over caribou or deer hides: They shed a lot less hair and therefore last much longer. Most tribes that used caribou skins for winter clothing made a new set of clothing every winter or two. In contrast, pelts can last for years (if they´re taken care of) without much wear. The picture above shows a caribou parka I made a few years ago which lasted about one winter before most of the hairs were worn off…
Now compare that to the coyote parka which has been used on a daily basis for more than one winter.
The parka spread out with the inside up. It consists of a front and rear panel (1 brain-tanned coyote pelt each), with side-flaps (half a pelt for each) sewn to both sides of the rear flap. Front and rear flap are sewn together at the shoulder/neck area, with a circular opening cut out for the head. The sleeves (1 pelt each) are attached at the shoulders with the armpits left open – this prevents excessive buildup of sweat. In warm weather, the parka can just be left dangling from the shoulders (much like a poncho). Since the armpits are open, it´s easy to put the sleeves on or off in this position. For more insulation, the side flaps can be tied together over the front panel (see tying strigs on the side flaps in the picture above) – this way all the exposed areas get closed up.
For this parka I used no patterns; measurements were done by eye and by temporarily sewing the parka in a few spots to test & adjust.
All the stiches on the parka are simple whip stiches with buckskin thongs as shown in the picture above. Coyote pelts are quite thin (which makes them fairly easy to tan) and yet strong and durable, so I wasn´t too concerned with elaborate stiching. After a season of heavy use I noticed though that the seams in the areas with a lot of stress/tension (such as where the sleeves are attached to the main body of the parka) had ripped in some spots. I reenforced those areas with a welt to lessen the tension on the seams.
For an excellent article on making a fur parka of a similar design I recommend the article “Make your own Fur Parka” by Tamarack Song, Wilderness Way Volume 15 Issue 1. Unfortunately the magazine is no longer being published but you may find a used copy somewhere.
Coyote fur leggins. Each leg cosists of two pelts sewn into tubes which overlap in the knee area. Because of the amout of streching that happens in that area, I only sewed the pelts in the back and to the side of the knee, with the upper pelt overlapping the lower one in front of the knee.
I find that fur is usually too bulky and too warm for a loincloth (unless the hair is very short), so I decided to use a buckskin loincloth with a back flap of fur (folded under the buckskin section in the picture above and therefore not visible). Since the fur from the leggins already covers most of the hip and thigh area and the parka overlaps the upper part of the leggins, I haven´t noticed any drafts or coldspots with this design (which can sometimes be an issue with a leggins and loincloth combination). The back flap provides an instant insulating cushion for sitting down wherever one desires. The upper outer edge of each leggin is folded over and sewn so that a belt can pass through to hold up the leggins and loincloth. As with the parka, all stiches are whip stiches made with buckskin thong and a buckskin welt for reenforcement.
There is one downside to the leggins: Unless the temperature is 0F (-17C) or lower they´re simply too warm…
As usual, I welcome any thoughts, questions, suggestions…if you made some of your own winter gear, I´d love to hear about how it´s been working for you and what you discovered in the process!