Fur, or leather with the hair retained, has been used by man for insulation against the cold throughout our history. That’s about 200,000 years. In the late 20th century competition emerged from synthetic fibers made from fossil fuels, marketed under such exotic names as “synchilla” and “eco-fleece”. But with society’s growing understanding of our environment’s fragility, more people are again embracing natural fibers that are renewable and biodegradable. Thus the future of fur looks secure as a key component in dressing modern man and providing us with comfortable protection against the elements.
Until the advent of animal agriculture 10,000 years ago, all fur came from the wild. But today, most comes from farms, with mink and fox accounting for about 80%. The remaining 20%, however, represents a great diversity of species. From timber wolves controlled for human safety in Alaska, to beavers controlled in Massachusetts to protect water quality, to seals hunted for food and fiber in the High North, wild fur remains an important player in the cold-weather clothing business.
In antelope the skin should be supple, although the hair tends to be stiff and flat. The color is usually light brown to gray, depending on whether the antelope is from Africa or America. Because of the stiffness and flatness of the hair, the hair may tend to rub off easily. As a result, leather may be used for edging to protect sleeves, pockets, collars, etc., from friction. Antelope is used in coats, jackets, vests, and accessories. It is not a durable fur if worn steadily. At the same time, it’s inexpensive and attractive for casual wear.
Asiatic raccoon (Nyctereutes procyonoides)
Asiatic raccoons are native to Japan, eastern Siberia, Manchuria, Vietnam and the Korean peninsula. In the mid-20th century they were introduced by the fur-farming industry across the former USSR, and then to Scandinavia and France. In Japan, where they are known as “tanuki”, they have an extensive folklore attached to them.
While the US Federal Trade Commission identifies this species as “Asiatic raccoon”, they are commonly marketed in northern Europe as “Finn raccoon”. Meanwhile, a widely used English name is “raccoon dog”, in reference to their classification under the Canidae family. However, they are the only species in the genus Nyctereutes, and are not closely related to canines (true dogs) or vulpines (foxes). (See Wikipedia entry on Canidae for more information.)
The fur is dense and soft, with long dorsal guard hairs, tipped black. Head markings are a white muzzle and face, with black surrounding the eyes, resembling a raccoon, with a black mark spanning the shoulders and running down the back in the form of a cross. Body color varies greatly, from dusky brown to yellow-brown above, and light brown or tan on the belly. The color is similar to a cross fox, however, with the same distinctive cross marking.
Pelts are used for complete garments as well as trim, while in Japan the bristles are used in calligraphy brushes.
Badger is long-haired and is generally used unplucked, except for the grotzen (the long, mane-like guard hairs running down the back), which is plucked. It’s a wild fur, with the color varying, depending on where the badger is from. The best badger has a natural silvery tint. Canadian badger is gray with pale white underfur, while badger from the US has gray guard hairs and creamy underfur. Asiatic (China) badger has a yellowish-brown underfur and gray guard hair. North American badger is softer and fuller than other badger. Badger is so durable that a coat can wear for years, given good care and regular cleaning. Because badger is so heavy in weight, it is often “leathered”, that is, made with strips of badger alternating with leather. Leathered badger is much lighter in weight but is not as durable.
Bassarisk (Bassariscus astutus)
The bassarisk goes by many other names, some of the most common being ringtail, ring-tailed cat and miner’s cat. Before 1952, when the Federal Fur Products Labeling Act became law, it was often called rock sable. However, it is neither a sable nor a cat, but a type of raccoon.
Bassarisk are found throughout California, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah and parts of northern Mexico. They are occasionally hunted for their fur, though it is not very valuable.
The fur is naturally a brownish yellow in color, touched with gray. The best bassarisk has good yellow tones. The belly and flank, often used by themselves in coats, are paler yellow and shade to light brown, similar to fitch. Bassarisk may also be bleached or dyed. It isn’t a long-wearing fur, although it will give long wear with care.
Beavers are now found only in North America in quantity, though they are making a comeback in the former Soviet Union. It is an aquatic animal with shiny, coarse guard hair and soft, exceptionally thick underfur called beaver wool or duvet.
The color range is wide. It may be dark brown on the back, shading to pale golden brown on the sides, or the entire fur may be pale or even silvery. Whatever the color, beaver should never have a red cast. The best beaver comes from Canada, the northern US, and Alaska. Northern beaver wears longest.
Southern beaver has a thicker skin and is inexpensive in comparison to northern beaver. The fur texture is similar, although the underfur may not be as thick. Beaver is used both natural and plucked and sheared. Southern beaver is best when natural.
Natural beaver: Natural beaver doesn’t resemble the sheared beaver with which most of us are familiar. Watch for long guard hairs that give the fur a lustrous sheen. Natural beaver is ideal for men’s coats because of the rugged look. It also makes striking casual wear for both men and women. Natural beaver is a durable fur. Its natural brown color may be dyed other colors.
Sheared beaver: Beaver almost always used to be plucked and sheared to a velvety, soft pile. The natural color is sometimes dyed darker brown or beige or even bleached white. The fur may mat when wet and requires care and annual cleaning.
Burunduki is a member of the chipmunk family, with short, coarse hair. The background fur is gray with a yellow tint. Russian burunduki has five dark and four light stripes, while Indian burunduki has three stripes. The pelts are so small that they are generally sewn into plates, from which garments are made. It’s used for linings, skirts, and accessories, because the fur isn’t durable enough for outer coats.
Calf is produced from young domesticated cows. The short, sleek hair may be used in natural colors, ranging from brown to black or tan and white. Calfskin may also be dyed or stenciled in imitation of other furs. The leather is much softer than antelope, although the short, stiff hairs will show wear, which means it’s often trimmed with leather. Calf is used for coats and sportswear.
The chinchilla is a rodent, native to the high Andes of South America. The name comes from “Chincha”, the South American Indians who used the hair for cloth, as did the Incas who conquered the Chinchas and the early Spaniards who defeated the Incas. Later, the blue-gray, exquisitely soft fur became so popular in Europe that chinchillas were almost extinct by 1914. Nowadays, all chinchilla is ranched, as the result of a few breeding pairs imported to the US in 1924.
The fur is very soft, silky, and dense. In fact, chinchilla fur has the highest hair density of any animal, with more than 20,000 per square centimeter. (This makes it impossible for parasites such as fleas to inhabit chinchillas, as they would suffocate.) Where humans grow one hair from each follicle, a chinchilla has more than 50.
Color is silvery gray top hair and dark underfur. The best chinchilla has a slate blue color, often enhanced by brighteners, although mutation colors are now also produced.
The small size and the fragility of the skin used to make chinchilla difficult to work with and very expensive. It’s still expensive, but new dressing methods have made it easier to work with and have improved its wearability. No fur needs more care, however. The fur is very warm, despite being one of the lightest.
Chinese Leopard Cat (Felis bengalensis chinensis)
Chinese Leopard Cat, also known in the fur trade as Lipi Cat, is one of several subspecies of the small Asian Leopard Cat found across eastern and southern Asia , but the only one that is traded internationally. While most Leopard Cats are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, the Chinese Leopard Cat is on Appendix II. The main threat to all Leopard Cat populations has been encroachment on their habitat by human development.
Casual observers have been known to confuse Leopard Cats with domesticated cats. However, the Leopard Cat actually has a much longer body, a distinctively thick and soft pelt, and far more striking coloring and markings.
As the name implies, these markings resemble the Leopard, and include rosetted and random spots, bands running from the forehead to the back of the neck, and a white underbelly with black or dark brown spots. Leopard Cats are found in a wide variety of habitats, from deserts to dense forests, and their markings and background color vary accordingly. The Chinese Leopard Cat, found primarily in China’s Yunnan Province, tends to have a richer, bolder pattern than other subspecies, adding to its commercial value, on a golden background.
Coyote are native to North America. They are predators, and often considered as pests since they may attack domestic and farm animals. At one time, coyote pelts were considered worthless, but as conservation efforts aimed at wolves grew, fur manufacturers began experimenting with coyote. The long-haired fur, often pale gray or tan in color with thick, paler underfur, is durable and warm and makes luxurious coats for both men and women.
Ermine used to be the fur of royalty, for whom it was reserved as a symbol of virtue and purity. Both the robes and crown that Elizabeth II wore for her coronation were trimmed in ermine, although today anyone who can afford the fur can wear ermine.
Ermine is actually a weasel. The weasel itself is found in many countries and climates, both in Europe and North America, but what we think of as ermine is found only in the former Soviet Union and northern Canada. In summer, it is a brownish gray, but as winter comes, it changes to a snowy white that again changes, in spring, to a shade of yellow. Ermine, therefore, is trapped only in mid-winter to get the prime, top-quality white color. Ermine is warm and will last many years, since it is too dressy for everyday wear. It requires good care and should be kept out of sunlight, which may turn it yellow. The best ermine is from the former Soviet Union.
Fisher is a marten, the American cousin of the Russian sable, the most sought-after being the fisher from the western US and Canada. The fur ranges from brown to black. The females, which are smaller than the males, have softer and silkier pelts. The fur is very durable and is used for coats, “little” furs, and scarves. In coats it may be let out, like mink. The best fisher is a chocolate brown in color.
Fitch comes in several natural colors. White fitch, which is native to Siberia, has distinctive flank markings. It’s the best fitch and is expensive. Fitch also comes from Germany, Austria, and Poland. This fitch is dark in color, with the best Polish fitch having distinctive stripes. Paradise or yellow fitch comes from Mongolia. Although fitch used to be dyed to resemble mink and sable, as the price has gone up, it has become valued for itself, with the best Russian white fitch becoming more expensive than mink. It has long guard hairs and woolly, compact underfur. In dark fitch, the underfur is lighter in color than the dark guard hairs.
Fitch can be worked many ways, both let out or in chevron and other designs for coats and jackets. It is less durable than mink, but it will wear well with care.
Fox, which comes in many natural colors, is found all over the world. Because of its long hair and distinctive coloring, its popularity depends on fashion, especially in the US. Fox is easy to ranch and was ranched extensively in the US at the height of its popularity. As its popularity waned, however, American fox farmers turned to raising mink, with the result that almost all fox today comes from ranches in Scandinavia (especially Norway), other European countries, and Russia, where it has always been fashionable. The ranching made possible the development of mutations such as silver and platina fox, that are variations of the natural colors.
Fox wears well, although it needs regular cleaning and care to keep the fur fluffy and the skins soft and supple. The price depends on the popularity, but red (the most common) fox is the least expensive, with platina and white the most expensive. Clarity of color is important in fox, as is the fullness and density of the underfur and soft sleekness of the guard hairs. Fox is also dyed high-fashion colors.
Blue fox: Blue fox is ranched extensively in Scandinavia. The color ranges from a blue brown to a real blue, as well as white with blue highlights.
Cross fox: The name comes from the distinctive cruciform marking in the head and neck region of the fox. The color is basically red fox with yellow tints, while the cross is deeper in color with the red mixed with black. Some cross foxes are silver in color and are called silver cross fox.
Gray fox: Most gray fox is American, with the best pelts coming from the northern states. It is silver gray with a slight tinge of red.
Kitt fox or corsac: North American kitt foxes are gray fox. In addition, there is corsac, which comes from Siberia and other places in the former Soviet Union. In comparison to other foxes, it has little guard hair. What guard hair it does have is yellow with white tips, although the fur tends to be short and soft. Corsac fox is less well-wearing than most other foxes.
Platina fox: The platina color was originally bred in Norway. It is a much lighter platinum color than silver fox, and the whiteness may be enhanced by slight bleaching.
Red fox: Red fox is native to every continent with the exception of South America. The best red fox comes from northern climates and is deeply furred with silky, strong texture.
Silver fox: Silver fox is entirely ranched. The fur is blue black in color with a white tip on the tail. The best silver fox is a true silver color with a black stripe.
White fox: This fox has extremely thick underfur. There may be a slight blue shade along the back of the pelt. Like all white furs, it may require bleaching to preventing its turning yellow. It is less wearable than the more common kinds of foxes, although it is the ultimate in glamor.
Guanaco is a South American relative of the camel. The pattern of the long-haired back in red or brown and white flanks, or sides, is sharp. The fur is thick and soft. Guanaco is used in coats and for trimmings and accessories. It needs a lot of care, since the thick, soft fur (there are no guard hairs) tends to curl when wet. If this happens, the fur should always be taken to a furrier for special ironing. Anyone who tries to repair a fur coat in any way runs the risk of ruining the fur.
Karakul: See Persian lamb.
Kidskin comes from young goats and mainly from Ethiopia and China. The fur is short, flat, and silky with no underfur. The color may be gray, black, tan, or white. It may be dyed, too. Kid sometimes has markings like broadtail – a moiré or watered-silk pattern. Kidskin may be made into plates, from which garments are made. It is not a durable fur, as is the case with most flat-haired furs.
Lamb is one fur that cannot be described in a few words. It may be long-haired or short-haired. It may be flat with a wavy pattern or curly. It may be inexpensive to expensive. In addition, the fur industry is now using types of lamb that were seldom, if ever, used before. Each type of fur, therefore, has its own characteristics and colors, although almost all curly lamb is very durable.
Broadtail: Broadtail is the most perishable and one of the most expensive kinds of lamb. It is best for a second fur. It is used in coats (usually very dressy) but, because of its thin, soft leather and fine short hair, it is also used in “fantasy furs”. A broadtail evening suit, for example, would be the ultimate in broadtail – and fur – apparel and fashion. Broadtail comes from stillborn and unborn lambs of karakul sheep. The sheep aren’t killed for their lambs, which is one reason broadtail is exclusive and expensive. Broadtail has a silky texture and fine moiré or watered-silk pattern. Natural gray broadtail wears the best, with natural brown broadtail wearing next best. Black broadtail is dyed, and, like all dyed furs, wears least well, as is the case with the high-fashion colors that broadtail can also be dyed.
Broadtail (American processed): American processed broadtail is made from pelts of a certain kind of lamb that have been sheared near the skin to give the distinctive moiré pattern of natural broadtail. It is more durable than broadtail, since the skins aren’t as thin, and is less expensive. It may be left its natural color or dyed other colors. The shearing should be close enough to the skin that the moiré pattern doesn’t have a curl.
Mongolian lamb: This lamb has long, wavy, silky hair. It is sporty and attractive in coats and jackets, but needs special care because it can turn frizzy in wet weather. It is usually left its natural “lamb” color (off-white) or is bleached white.
Mouton lamb: Mouton lamb is sheared sheepskin. The hair is straightened, treated, and set to make a soft, water-repellent, close fur that may be dyed black or brown to imitate Alaska or northern fur seal or beaver. It may also be dyed other colors, although the natural color is generally off-white.
Shearling: Shearling is natural sheepskin that has been sheared (similar to mouton lamb), while the leather side has been sueded. The fur, or sheared, side is worn next to the skin.
Shearling is the shepherd’s coat that’s traditional to many eastern European and Asian countries from Hungary to Afghanistan and points east. These coats are often embroidered on the suede side, and the fur side may have longer hair. Shearlings are also “traditional” jackets for western cowboys and ranchers.
The coats and jackets are casual, sporty, long wearing and relatively inexpensive. The shearling side tends to be more closely sheared than on shepherds’ coats. They do need care to keep the sueded side soft and clean, and the lamb side from matting, although the best American shearlings will not spot from rain.
Until not so long ago, shearlings were considered heavy. However, better tanning methods have made the finest-quality shearlings much lighter, heralding their arrival on the fashion scene.
Persian lamb: Persian lamb is also called karakul, or caracul. It used to be called astrakhan as well. The sheep are raised for their meat and wool in the former Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and other countries in that area, but they are also raised in Namibia as well. Persian lamb from the last area listed is trademarked Swakara. Bukhara is the finest Russian Persian lamb. Broadtail is lamb that is stillborn or unborn. Persian broadtail is lamb that is a few days old or less. Persian lamb (karakul, Swakara, and Bukhara) is lamb that is not older than 10 days. The difference in age allows the fur to develop from the moiré pattern to a tight, close curl. After that age, the fur gets longer and begins to lose the distinctive curl. Persian lamb goes in and out of fashion in the United States, but it has long been one of the most popular furs in Europe, especially Germany. The best-wearing Persian lambs are the natural browns, grays, and whites. Black Persian lamb is dyed to avoid the whiteness of the natural leather from showing through the curls. Persian lamb today, thanks to better breeding, comes in a wider range of natural colors and is lighter in weight than even a few years ago.
Tibet lamb: This lamb is similar to Mongolian lamb, except the silky hair is longer – as long as three to four inches – and may be frizzier. It, too, is off-white, although it can be dyed, and needs special care to keep it from frizzing unattractively. Both Mongolian and Tibet lamb can be straightened if they become too frizzy.
See Chinese Leopard Cat.
Lynx is a long-haired fur that is light-colored with spotted, textured body hair. It’s native to parts of northern and central Europe, Canada, and the United States, with the markings varying according to its native habitat. The rarest lynx is the Russian white lynx, which is protected by the Russian government. Only limited amounts of pelts are sold, accounting for its high price tag. In addition to having an exceptionally fluffy snow-white coat with subtle black spots, it is also the only long-haired fur that won’t shed. The belly of the pelt is usually whiter and has longer fur, and garments made only of belly fur are therefore more expensive than those made from whole pelts.
Canadian lynx has less subtle markings, while Montana lynx is more strongly marked. Bay lynx or bobcat is much more strongly marked, with flatter hair, and is the least expensive kind of lynx.
Marmot is native to North America, Europe and Asia. The American marmot (better known as woodchuck or groundhog) isn’t used for fur. Marmot that is used for fur comes from Russia and China. The hair tends to be coarse, although the guard hairs are silky and the underfur is thick. It’s bluish in color before hibernation and yellowish afterwards. Although it may be used in its naturally bluish color, it may also be dyed to resemble mink. Marmot is reasonably durable and not expensive.
Marten belong to the weasel family, along with mink and sable. Russian marten, in fact, are sable. The marten found in Canada are called Canadian sable. Marten need care and treatment to wear well and stay fluffy. The types of marten called marten are:
American marten: American marten have very long guard hairs and dense, fine underfur. The color ranges from blue brown to dark brown. It may also be pale brown or yellow with orange tones. The skins are worked many ways, including let out, and guard hairs may be plucked. American marten are the least expensive marten, since they are not as soft or fine as the other marten.
Baum marten: Baum marten are native to Europe, Asia Minor, and the Himalayas. They are naturally brown in color and may be dyed to resemble sable. As with all martens, they may be let out or used in various patterns for coats or be used for whole-skin scarves and “little” furs.
Stone marten: Stone marten come from approximately the same places as baum marten, although not as far north. The fur is similar but it is much finer than baum marten. The best stone marten have a bluish cast to the fur; the underfur is whitish. They are used in the same way as baum marten.
A mink coat is the coat to many women – and to growing numbers of men. Mink are a member of the weasel family. Although they are found in the wild almost everywhere in North America and in some other parts of the world, the majority of mink are ranched. Very few wild mink are trapped any more because ranched mink are so superior in quality and color. American mink are the finest in the world, thanks to scientific breeding and rearing.
Female mink are smaller and have softer, lighter pelts than the males. Consequently, more female skins are needed for a coat than male skins. It is just as warm, however, although the weight may be less.
Mink is worked in many ways, and every part of the skin is used. It is a very durable fur that can last twenty years or more with care, depending on the quality. Prime quality skins are used natural and will wear the best. Dyed mink represents lesser quality skins – and both the lesser quality and the dyeing mean that it won’t wear as well.
Natural ranch mink: The guard hairs should be silky and even in length, while the underfur should be dense and compact and paler in color. The mink should have a naturally lustrous sheen.
Mutation mink: Again, the guard hairs should be silky and even in length. The color should be clear and uniform. The price depends on the availability – and popularity – of colors. At times, natural ranch mink may be more expensive.
Pieced mink: A coat may be made, wholly or partially, of paws, gills and tails. It may also contain other pieces of mink. If the coat is patterned, such as to give a chevron effect, look for evenness of pattern and texture throughout the coat. Pieced coats may not wear as well as whole skin coats, because of the many seams. A good pieced mink coat should be reinforced on the leather side with nylon or ribbon at points of wear. Pieced mink coats can be very attractive, and they are much less expensive than natural mink coats that are let out or skin-on-skin.
Mole is an example of how an animal considered to be a pest can turn out to have value. According to tradition, moles in Scotland were creating havoc among the farmers until Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII of England, ordered a garment made of mole – and started a new fashion. Mole, which comes from Europe, has a small, even tiny, pelt. The taupe gray pelts are sewn together and dyed for exotic, special “fantasy furs”. The leather is very soft, while the fur is short and delicate, resembling velvet in texture. All fur, with the exception of mole, grows from the head of the animal running back to the tail and should always be touched that way. Mole, on the other hand, has no “grain”; it feels the same whichever way it’s touched, making it unique among furs.
Musquash is the Canadian and British name for muskrat, one of the most versatile furs. It can be used many ways, including being dyed to resemble mink and plucked and sheared to resemble beaver. Hudson seal, which is no longer made but was popular in the 1920s and 1930s, was actually plucked and sheared muskrat dyed to look like Alaska, or northern, fur seal. The name muskrat comes from glands near the tail that give off an odor, musk. Musk is used in perfumes and cosmetics. Muskrat are found all over the United States, mainly in marsh areas that are unsuitable for agriculture. It is extremely hardy and prolific, which means that it would become a pest if not trapped. At times, in fact, it has become so numerous that it’s left the marshes for farmlands where it’s caused severe damage. Its color, in general, is dark brown on the back shading to golden brown and silver on the flanks. Jersey, or eastern, muskrat is darker in color, almost black, and the most expensive. Eastern muskrat is long-wearing with care, although all muskrat wears well.
Nutria is a South American cousin of the beaver. It was introduced into swamps in the United States to reduce the muskrat population. It was also farmed, and, according to one story, a few breeding pairs escaped from a farm in Louisiana during a hurricane, only to find the marshes and swamps there ideal. Whatever the reason, since its introduction into the United States in the 1950s, nutria have thrived. If not trapped, they could become a pest in competition for the same land with muskrats and other wildlife.
Nutria has traditionally been plucked, sheared, and dyed a variety of colors from black, brown and beige to many others. Sheared nutria is soft and light in weight, making it ideal for use in vests, linings, and “indoor furs”, as well as luxury coats.
Some innovative furriers have also tried using nutria natural, unplucked and unsheared. This natural nutria has thick, glossy guard hair, a light brown color shading to a yellowish red brown, and dense underfur. The best nutria is a rich brown. Natural nutria is also dyed.
All nutria is very warm and wears well, although sheared nutria needs special care – as does any sheared fur – and should always be stored in the summer. It is lighter weight than beaver, whether sheared or natural, but similar in texture and color.
The common opossum, a cousin of the Australian possum, is common across North and Central America. It has long, silvery gray guard hairs and a thick white underfur with black tips. The hair should be silky and thick and the color good. It can last up to ten years, and may be tinted and dyed, or plucked and sheared.
While some species of otter are endangered, others are not. The otter used for fur nowadays are American and Canadian inland otter. Like most aquatic animals, it has a sleek, flat, lustrous fur with dense underfur. Its natural color is brown, and it wears well. Otter may be left natural or plucked and sheared, giving it a variety of looks. Otter, because of its sturdy wear and good looks, makes attractive sports furs and appeals to men as well as women.
Pahmi (Asian ferret badger)
This small badger comes from China and India. Its guard hair, which ranges from brown to silver gray, is much darker than the dense orange yellow underfur. It may be used natural or plucked and sheared and wears well. A disadvantage is that pahmi, when wet, has an odor like skunk.
Pony used for fur comes from wild ponies, mostly from the former USSR and Poland. Other pony comes from Siberia, Mongolia, Denmark, and South America. The best pony may have a moiré pattern similar to broadtail, in which case the pattern should be uniform.
Pony is usually dyed. It wears similarly to calf and antelope because of the flat, stiff hairs, and softness of leather is important for this reason.
The possum is indigenous to Australia, but is now far more numerous in New Zealand, where it was introduced as a source of free-range food and fiber. With no natural predators and the advent of synthetic clothing, however, it became a serious threat to New Zealand’s indigenous fauna and flora. Today, commercial use of possums for their fur helps underwrite an expensive campaign to eradicate or control the animal for environmental reasons.(1)
Its fur is silkier than that of its North American cousin, the opossum. The fur comes in colors provided by nature of deep browns, rusty browns and a rich blue gray. It can be bleached, dyed or sheared. The fiber is also mixed with Merino wool for a hybrid that is comfortable in a greater range of cold conditions than wool alone, and the addition of the fur fiber allows the wool hybrid to resist pilling and last far longer.
(1) Money grows on trees in New Zealand. Cozying up to eco-friendly fur. By Chrys Hutchings, for the Property and Environment Research Center, December 2008.
Rabbit is noted for being very inexpensive. It’s also noted as being the great imitator, because of its use to imitate just about any other fur. Both wild and domestic rabbits are used, although most rabbit fur today comes from animals raised for food purposes, the skins of which would be thrown out if not used for fur.
Rabbit may be left natural or it may be plucked, sheared, dyed, and processed in the effort to make it resemble other furs. As a result, it used to be called a wide variety of names, including lapin, sealine, beaverette and chinchillette. But nowadays it is legally required to be called rabbit, no matter how it’s processed.
Long-haired rabbit tends to shed. Thus, anyone who wears dark colors would be better off with a darker color or dyed rabbit than with a white or light-colored rabbit coat or jacket. In any case, the texture should be silky and the color uniform. Some rabbit is leather-edged to give it a longer life. Although rabbit may wear as long as five years or more, the average rabbit coat or jacket probably wears about three years. Keeping in mind that a rabbit coat may cost less than a cloth coat, though, it gives good value for the money.
Rex Rabbit: The fur of this special breed is quite distinct from that of regular rabbits. According to the National Rex Rabbit Club (U.S.), the breed was the product of a recessive gene first spotted in France in 1919. Unlike regular rabbits, the Rex has no prominent “guardhair”, resulting in a silkier, denser fur resembling chinchilla or sheared mink. Rex rabbits were imported into the U.S. in the 1920s. (See Rabbit Redux: A Once-Lowly Fur Finds New Luster, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 27, 2004. Outside link.)
Natural rabbit skin pictures (courtesy of Chichester, Inc., Niagara Falls, NY)
Raccoon is a truly American animal and fur, and it’s come a long way from the enormous, heavy coats that were a “must” for the 1920s college man and the Davy Crockett hats of the 1950s. Raccoon are found all over the United States and in southern Canada, with its fur getting thicker and longer the farther north the animal lives. Although the distinctive tail alternates black with tan rings, the body guard hairs are long and silvery with black tips and the gray sides shade to black along the middle of the back. The best raccoon has plentiful guard hair, heavy underfur, and a silvery color. If raccoon is plucked and sheared, the texture should be silky and the shearing even. Sheared raccoon, as is true of any sheared coat, needs special care to keep it from matting. Raccoon can also be bleached or dyed. The fur can be very durable with care, as the number of raccoon coats from the 1920s that were around a few years ago (and may even still be around) demonstrate.
One day raccoon may not be truly American. Pairs have been resettled in Russian forests where they’re said to be growing in number.
Sable are actually marten – the finest, most luxurious and expensive marten. The best sable comes from the Barguzin Valley in Russia and is denser and silkier than Canadian sable, while Chinese and Japanese sable are the lowest in quality. Most sable are wild and protected in preserves, although some have been and are ranched. However, Russia has strictly controlled the sale of breeding stock.
The Russian government has a monopoly on sable. V/O Sojuzpushnina, a Russian trade organization, holds fur auctions in January, July and October, at which sables (and other furs) are auctioned. The proceeds go to the government. This system is little different from the system in czarist times when a good portion of the imperial family’s income came from the sale of sable, except that the royal family sold sable only to other crowned heads. The finest sable, Barguzin sable, was reserved for the czar and his family’s use, which is why it’s called crown or imperial sable.
Prime sable is deeply furred with even, silvery-tipped guard hairs, making it silkier than mink. The color is a rich brown with a blue cast. Golden sable, which is a reddish or amber color, is less expensive. All sable, nevertheless, is very expensive – but as warm and light in weight as it is heavy in price.
Commercial harvests of seals focus on two species, the harp seal and ring seal. The industry plays an important role in parts of Canada, Greenland, and northern Europe, where populations of these species are abundant, but pressure from animal rights groups has resulted in restrictions in the trade of pelts. Notably, in the US, trade in seal skins, along with all other marine mammal products, is banned. Also banned is the formerly important harvesting of very young “whitecoat” harp seals.
Both harp and ring seals are “hair” seals, so called because their pelts are comprised entirely of short, shiny guard hairs, with no underfur. For insulation, they depend primarily on their blubber. The result is what is called “flat” fur, of which hair seal fur is the longest wearing of all, being much more durable than calf or antelope, for example. Because of the lack of underfur, hair seal fur is not as warm as “true” furs like mink. However, it provides good resistance to wind and rain.
Hair seal fur is used for vests, jackets, skirts and pants, and also for accessories such as purses and bags. It also takes dyes very well, though this treatment is normally reserved for lower grade pelts.
Other species of seal, such as the Cape fur seal, do have underfur. When used for clothing, the guard hairs are plucked and the underfur sheared to produce a soft, velvety “duvet”, much like preparing sheared beaver.
Skunk are native to North and South America. Both continents produce similar animals, although South American skunk may be called Zorina. Skunk, with its distinctive white striping down the back and dark or black color, is probably familiar to most Americans especially for the evil-smelling spray they issue when threatened and when killed on the roads by cars. The stripe varies in width but is actually divided like a V and may be long or short. Some skunk fur may even be all black. The underfur is thick and long, keeping the silky guard hairs erect. It’s worked both with and without the stripe. The color should be a glossy blue black and the stripe, if used, narrow. It wears well. The problem with skunk has been that it may have a slight odor when wet. Nowadays, this problem has been almost eliminated.
Squirrels are native to most countries. The best squirrel for fur purposes comes from Siberia. It is blue gray in color and is left natural. This gray squirrel is the miniver of the Middle Ages, when it was a status symbol worn only by the aristocracy and high-ranking dignitaries. Siberian squirrel is also dyed, as is other squirrel which tends to have an unattractive brown color. Brown squirrel comes from Canada. Squirrels from the United States aren’t used for fur. The fur should be soft and silky, as well as dense in texture. A squirrel coat or jacket may wear eight years or more, with stoles, capes, and other little furs that aren’t worn every day wearing much longer with care.
The North American timber wolf, also known as the Canadian or Arctic wolf, has coarse, durable fur varying in color from almost white to black, but usually yellow to brownish grey. A full-furred specimen from northern regions will have bluish gray underwool and fine, black, flowing top hair. The fur is used natural, bleached or dyed in coats, jackets and trimming.
Weasels are native to many countries. The color varies, depending on season and country of origin. Weasel is similar to mink, to which it’s related, except that the hair is shorter. The fur is soft and light in weight. The yellow and light colors may be left natural, or the pelt may be dyed. Despite the resemblance to mink, weasel wears nowhere near as long, only about five to eight years.
The dark brown fur of the Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica), otherwise called Kolinsky or Kolinski, or yellow weasel, is found in parts of the Himalayas, Siberia and China. Historically it was marketed under a variety of other names, including China mink, Japanese mink, Siberian mink, yellow mink, red sable, and tatar sable. The hair of the males, in particular, is used in the finest paint brushes.
The brown underfur is thick and dense, with the guard hair varying from dark brown to yellowish, with a white stripe along the sides. It is usually used natural and is rarely dyed, so a wolverine jacket should have dense underfur and an attractive striped pattern.
Wolverine fur has a durability rating of 100 so it lasts for years. But it is also heavy, so it is used primarily for trimmings, small jackets and small wraps. It is also used for the ruffs of parka hoods because it does not hold moisture and freeze against the face.
For further information contact Fur Commission USA.
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