skip to primary navigation skip to content


Rejuvenating a spray skirt « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Rejuvenating a spray skirt

Recently we have been conserving several Inuit clothing items so that we can refresh the Inuit clothing display in the Museum.  We aim to rotate objects in this case every couple of years because many of them are light sensitive, and can be damaged by spending too long on display.  Refreshing the display is good for the objects and allows them to rest, but it also gives us a chance to show other fascinating artefacts from our collection.  You can read more about this and the exciting discovery that our conservation intern Flavia made in our collection on the University of Cambridge Museums blog.

Meanwhile, I have been treating a spray skirt from Eastern Greenland for the new display.


It is very similar to the waterproof spray decks used in modern kayaking, but it is made from sealskin.  It was worn up round the chest, and the lower edge was fitted over the hole in the kayak and fastened with a drawstring to keep water out.


This one is subtly but beautifully decorated with white and red leather strips.   It also has some repairs where it was damaged in use, and these are immaculately neat.


This patch has been applied using an ingenious technique for waterproof stitching.  The stitches do not penetrate the whole way through both pieces of skin, so water can’t seep in through the needle holes.  The patch has been sewn on from both the front and the back using two separate rows of stitches, so it is very secure.


This was how the spray skirt looked before I began treatment.  It has been stored folded flat and has stiffened a lot over time, so it was rather like a flattened cereal box in texture when I first saw it.  I wanted to open it out and return it to its original shape so people can understand how it works when they see it on display.  Unfortunately, the skin is very aged and will never again be flexible like it was when new.  In fact it was so stiff that the skirt could not be opened safely, and constantly returned to the flat folded shape when it was handled.  However, it is possible to soften the leather temporarily with humidity, to open the skirt up and “set” it in a more suitable shape.

It is important to humidify aged leather in a controlled way to avoid wetting it directly and potentially damaging or staining it.  First I made a tent for the skirt out of polythene and used an ultrasonic humidifier to raise the humidity inside.


As the leather softened I opened it out gradually, using archival foam blocks and rolls to support it in the new shape.


Once the shape was roughly right I humidified particular areas which needed adjusting.  This time I used a breathable fabric membrane (Sympatex – more commonly found in cagoules) and damp cotton jersey in layers to diffuse water into the object slowly.  Using more archival foam and gentle clamps I set the leather into shape while it dried out and became rigid again.  The picture at the top shows how it looks now.

Inuit people are still using traditional designs for kayak clothing, although now they are often made from neoprene.  Even so, some still think the sealskin spray skirts were the best – apart from the smell!    For more about Inuit kayaking clothes try this lovely British Museum virtual tour.

There is a lively community still practising traditional Inuit kayakking techniques, and they have a very interesting online forum at Qajaq USA.

Comments are closed.