Sewing is a matter of life and death in the Polar Regions. If you cannot repair a tear in your clothing then you could die of cold, and if you cannot mend your bags and straps then you could lose valuable supplies. So sewing is not just for girls – everyone has to do it. That is why the Polar Museum has several sewing kits belonging to famous Polar explorers, including Captain Robert Scott, and Apsley Cherry Garrard.
This is Scott’s “ditty bag”, or sewing kit. A kit like this is also sometimes called a “housewife” (pronounced “hussif”). The bits of thread in the needle eyes show it has been used.
Indigenous Arctic men would also take sewing equipment wherever they went. This is a belt for a Sami man (from Northern Sweden) with a pale yellow needle case attached to it alongside two knives and a whetstone in a pouch. The needle case is made from reindeer horn.
Inuit hunters also took needle cases out with them when hunting.
A lot of clothes, bags and harnesses in our collection have emergency repairs on them which were made by men in the field. They are not always very neat, but that is understandable when you consider many of them were made by men wearing thick gloves!
This is part of a man-hauling harness used by men for pulling sledges on Scott’s Terra Nova expedition of 1910-13. The right-hand metal reinforcement ring has fallen out and been replaced with a very competent stitched buttonhole to strengthen the strap hole. Repairs like this are part of the history and character of museum objects, so we never undo them or “improve” them unless it is essential for the safety of the artefact.
Clearly anyone can and will sew something in an emergency. But some men in the Polar Regions take it a step further and sew for fun. We have recently been given a fascinating collection of objects and archive material from the family of Robert Bentham, a geologist who worked on Ellesmere Island with Ernest Shackleton’s son Edward in 1934-7. Included was an elaborate sealskin bag which he made himself:
And my personal favourite – a deerstalker made by Bentham from polar bear skin!