25 • An Inuit Blanket

25 • An Inuit Blanket

Greenland; 19th or early 20th century
120 × 94 cm; Eider duck down

‘The Moravian missionaries showed me some beautiful eider-down blankets which were made by the Eskimos of Greenland for sale in the Danish markets…they were the softest, lightest, warmest and most beautiful blankets I had ever seen, and I was told that they brought such fancy prices that they were beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. I believe the natives also use these skins for winter underwear, wearing them with the down side next to the skin.’ Life Histories of North American Wild Fowl, Arthur Cleveland Bent ©Washington Government Printing Office, 1923

Revered American ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent wrote this account of seeing an Inuit blanket in 1923 and he would have been describing blankets very much like this one. For centuries eider-down has been treasured for its extraordinary warmth and softness; even the legendary hardiness of Vikings was said to have been softened by it, preferring to sleep in bedding filled with it; and in the middle ages records exist of it being accepted as payment by tax collectors.

Eiders are the largest ducks in the northern hemisphere and their scientific name – Somateria Molissima – betrays the extraordinary quality of their down, derived from ‘body wool’ in Ancient Greek (soma erion) and ‘softest’ in Latin (mollissimus). These blankets are also objects of extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship, their elegant borders using the natural colour and patterns of the birds – they are as simple as they are sophisticated and perfect expressions of the culture from which they were produced. Few survive outside of their native climate, moths find them equally appealing and are diffcult to fend off once they are outside of the cold and dry of their native climate.