Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Central Arctic Bone Needle Case

Metacarpal needle case
This is a bone needle case reproduction based on Inuit artifacts from the Central Arctic that were made from the lower leg bones of caribou.  You can view the specific artifact that this piece is based on in the Canadian Museum of Civilization's online artifact catalog.

Needle Case: IV-D-151 a18

Central Arctic sewing kit reproductions, needle case, thimble, needles, sinew

Where to find the thimble and case
The metatarsals and, especially, the metacarpals of caribou are perfectly suited to making strong, sturdy tube containers.  Both ends of the bone are cut off and the interior canal is ground and cleaned out until its smooth inside.  The ends of the bones seem perfectly suited to make thimbles, and I suspect that they probably were used that way, although I can't say for certain.  Bird bones are sometimes used to make similar needle cases.  The bird bone tube will have a round cross section, while the metapodial tubes are D-shaped in cross section.

Needle Case: 13 cm x 2 cm x 1.5cm
I wasn't able to locate caribou metapodials, so I was forced to use the same bone from another species of deer. From what I can tell, the mid part of the shaft where the needle case comes from is pretty much identical, although the knuckle part of the bone would flare a bit more in caribou.  I antiqued it in tea and used charcoal and a bit of red ochre to bring out the incised pattern on the needle case.

Palaeoeskimo Needle Case Reproduction
The decorated and antiqued bone tube is as far as I need to take this reproduction, but a complete needle case would have a few more moving parts.  They're really clever little devices.  The reproduction of a Palaeoeskimo bird bone needle case shown on the left is one I made a few years ago and it illustrates some of the missing pieces.  All of the bone components are based on artifacts found at Port au Choix, NL.   A folded strip of sealskin that is twice as long as the tube would run through the middle of the case.  On one end of the leather strap there is a small stopper to keep the leather from sliding out of the tube.  Sometimes this is an awl or a simple bone or ivory button, as in the Palaeoeskimo example.  On the opposite end of the strap there is a little toggle to hold thimbles on the leather strap. I made leather thimbles for the Palaeoeskimo version because I'm not aware of any bone or ivory thimbles from Palaeoeskimo contexts - but I could be wrong.  I used a perforated bone tube for the toggle, but on Thule or Inuit needle case these toggles are often shaped like a tiny ox yoke or a wide "W" to hold your thimbles on the strap.  The needles are stuck into the sealskin and pulled inside the tube.  When you want to take your needles out you just pull the strip of leather, sliding the empty length of leather into the tube and your needles out.   It keeps your sewing kit together in one compact, sturdy container.

The Central Arctic Inuit sewing kit reproduction
Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Special thanks to Lori for spending the better part of the afternoon tracking down Elfshot file photos.

  2. Nice piece! I've got a few questions. Is it made from Rangifer tarandus or is it another varaint of tarandus? What birds would you say were most usual?

    Magnus Reuterdahl/Testimony of the spade

  3. Given what they'd be sewing through, the scrap of leather in the centre of the tube may also have doubled as a gripping surface, for pulling needles through the hide. Even with pre-punched holes, hauling needles through grippy fabrics can be tough. Thimbles can work to push needles through, too, but sometimes you just have to haul on them. When your hands are sweaty or slightly greasy or even very dry, fingers can't grip needles easily. Mom, who sometimes works with hide, often uses pliers to get a firm grip. I've used leather scraps when pulling quilting needles.

  4. Thanks Magnus. Yes, in the part of the Arctic that this artifact came from its most likely that they were made from Barren Ground Caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus). Peary Caribou (Rangifer tarandus pearyi) might be another option, although they are so small that I don't know if their little leg bones would be long enough.

    I believe goose and swan wing bones are preferred for needle cases. It was a while ago, but I'm pretty sure that I used a goose wing bone in the reproduction shown above. One good "smoking gun" artifact was reported from Newfoundland by Wintemberg in 1940:

    "Needle Case: A plain tubular needle case containing a bone needle was found by Stephen Taylor at Cow Head. A section of an ulna, probably of the Canada Goose, 3 13/16 inches long, with the proximal end roughly broken and the other end evenly broken off may have been in process of manufacture into a needle case."

    Wintemberg, W.J. 1940 Eskimo Sites of the Dorset Culture in Newfoundland. American Antiquity 5(4):309-333

  5. Thanks Vicky - that's interesting insight - it certainly seems possible that you could use the leather to assist in pinching the needles. Even with an awl, leather can be tricky to work. The copper needles must have been a big improvement over the relatively fragile bone needles.

  6. Thanks for the info!


  7. It's really interesting just how similar the Central Arctic needlcases are to Saami needlecase from Scandinavia. It's almost an exact match-even some of the engraving (scrimshaw) designs look similar. Similar environment, too.

  8. Tim, I wanted to ask you what do you use to engrave the lines on this needlecase? Also when you use red ochre and charcoal do you dissolve it in something (like bear grease, oil, water etc.) and apply it all over or only on the lines? I mix the charcoal and or ochre with bear grease and smear it all over. However I have gotten too much penetration of the red or black coloration all over the bone. I think I will have to use a magnifying visor also because my lines aren’t nearly as nice as yours Tim! Then again, I’m probably older too.😒


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