A Trip to the Furrier

Last Monday, our class went to a furrier to see how coats (and other fur items) are made.  Before I go any further, I want you to know that I will not accept any comments as to the morality of this industry.  This was an educational trip, it was terribly interesting, and this blog entry is meant to share the information that I was fortunate enough for them to share with me.  If this may be disturbing to you, skip this post, okay?

I have always been very interested in fur, from a very young age.  My opinions as to its usage over the years have changed dramatically, and I will not use this particular entry to illustrate the current opinion that I have so carefully decided upon after much consideration and research (although, I cannot promise that there will not be a subsequent rant some other day).

The tour began in the retail area of the shop, with the owner kindly explaining all about the types of furs she sells.  I was proud that I could identify everything without help.  She also showed us some new techniques, such as clever knife cuts into the skins in various ways to create more movement, or simply to produce more volume from one fur. For example, one skin might be expanded to the area of nearly two, simply by cutting a vast array of slits alternating across the hide, thus creating an expandable skin with much more drape and twice the area!  This was probably my favorite technique, not only for the look, but because of its practicality. Because the slits are so small, you cannot see any difference from the right/fur side of the hide, except that the animal looks much bigger.

Next we went down into the workroom to see how a mink coat is made.  First, about 45-54 hides are sorted by color, laid next to each other in order so that any gradation is invisible to the eye.  This number of hides is enough to make a full-length, Cruella DeVille-style coat.  So all that you’ve heard about a couple hundred minks going into a standard mink coat is really untrue.  What surprised me was how large the skins actually are (my guess looking at them would be about 9″x28″).  I mean, I’ve seen mink in the wild, and they don’t seem that big, but once they are skinned, they are cleaned and tanned, and then stretched over a board and dried to maximize the area of each skin.

45-degree strips cut from hide

45-degree strips cut from hide

Once they are laid out, they are numbered to note the order.  These are either all-male, which is cheaper, or all-female, which is more expensive. The males are longer, but the females are more lush, if I’m to understand it correctly.  Going in order of the numbers, each hide is trimmed down to a rectangle (head, feet, and tails removed), slit down the middle/spine and put through a press that cuts it into 45 degree-angled strips that are only about 3/8″ wide.  What happens next is the secret to a fine mink coat: the strips are then sewn back together, only staggered along that angled cut by about 1/2″, so as to make one long stripe of fur for each side of the skin, getting to about 55″ long!  This is why when you see the narrow stripes of fur on a mink coat, that you think they are so little: as a little girl, I had imagined that each of those stripes was about 6 or 8 animals, all sewn together in a vertical row.  Not so!  Each stripe is all one animal–this was very enlightening.  So the pelt is actually made longer and narrower by this process, which is called “letting out.”

Sewing the strips on a furrier sewing machine.

Sewing the strips on a furrier sewing machine.

Then the let-out hides are laid out according to the pattern of the coat that will be made in such a way that they radiate from the top downward.  It is not so much like making a north-south/east-west fabric out of the hides, but putting them together according to the shape of the pattern itself.  Also very interesting.

After the coat’s skins are all sewn together and start looking like a coat (still sans lining), the “coat” is put into a giant tumbler with rubber balls to remove any stray hairs that may have shed in the process, as well as giving it the much-needed breaking of the stiffness that may be left over from the drying process in the beginning.

Finished stripes sewn together forming bottom of coat.

Finished stripes sewn together forming bottom of coat.

Then the coat is lined and put up for sale.  Isn’t that amazing?  I thought it was.

Then we went upstairs to look at the hats and how they are made, though that was quite abbreviated.  Basically, the hats can be sewn, blocked, or a combination of both.  For my millinery-aware buddies, I was surprised that a skin can be blocked just like felt (though you can’t hit it directly with steam, as that would cause the skin to shrink up and be destroyed).

The blocking technique deserves its own entry sometime, perhaps I will get to it one of these days (but probably not anytime soon).  It is quite a fascinating process.

All-in-all, I hope that this entry was interesting–I certainly am glad I went.  Even though I stated at the beginning of this entry that I would not be receiving comments regarding anyone’s opinion on the fur industry itself, I would be interested in hearing any technical comments you may have regarding the process, especially if you are a costumer and have worked with these materials before.  Thanks!

Email Me at StarsAndGartersWP@gmail.com
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