I was born in Canada and lived where winter temperatures routinely fell to 20, even 40 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. We had fur coats in the family which helped keep the cold at bay then, when I was five, we moved to California. We substituted bathing suits and flip flops for fur coats and, in time, my mother's fur coats were retired and turned into teddy bears.
Later I settled in San Diego and, for many years, owned only one type of fur which I wore almost daily from October through April: my sheepskin Ugg boots. Everyone in our family has a pair, along with every California surfer and skier.
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When I got involved in politics back in the 1980s and had to travel to DC, I realized I didn't own a raincoat, umbrella or dress boots. I bought all three items in one trip to Nordstroms. The boots lasted almost 15 years. I still have the lightweight black wool raincoat. I lost the umbrella years ago.
The Controversy Drops with the Temperature
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When I started working for mink farmers in 1998, some San Diegans would raise their eyebrows when we discussed fur while basking in 80-degree weather. But I have learned that the controversy drops with the temperature.
My job has taken me to glamorous places like Milwaukee, Fargo and Toronto in January and February. I've visited countries where the sun disappears for most of the day. Extreme weather can kill you in 15 minutes without the protection of cold-weather clothing. But I've strolled, comfy in fur and wool garments with leather boots, when the wind chill factor registered 40 below zero.
I laugh at those who scurry for cover as soon as a cold wind blows or frost nips. I slow down and enjoy the scenery. There is nothing quite as pleasurable as a slow walk on deserted streets or down a country lane on a frigid day. The scenery - snow in the naked branches of trees, icicles and snowflakes, all pale gray and icy blues - is not to be missed.
Short Nap Mink
My fine, short nap, female pelt mink jacket was born in the USA but has traveled so far it now has its own frequent flyer miles. I've worn it on the subways and ferries in New York, San Francisco, DC, Seattle and London. I've worn it in the rain on cruises on San Diego Bay in December and, yes, to the grocery store.
I've visited the farm in Illinois where the mink for this jacket were raised. Every year the farm's mink just keep getting better and the farmer proves it in the marketplace with record-breaking prices for pelts and breeding stock.
I bought two fox fur-trimmed cashmere ponchos, one for $600 and one for less than $100 at an outdoor market on the bay in Helsinki. I gave one as a gift to a friend who wore it all over Europe and I've worn the other regularly in San Diego: nighttime concerts, dinner downtown, walks on the beach. A few years ago it toured the Norwegian fjords on a cruise ship with an old friend, a Norwegian fisherman and whaler, and in 2008 it visited New Zealand.
Being a fan of natural fibers, I keep my eyes open at second-hand shops. I've scored a vintage mink in San Diego that we used to raise funds for charity. But my best find was a South American Alpaca poncho that I found for $20 at a Portland goodwill store!
I have a selection of fur collars that warm up my business suits for winter dressing in the cold regions of Wisconsin and Minnesota. A grey clip-on fur collar looks terrific with a red wool suit jacket; a brown mink collar goes well with a hunter green pant suit. A white mink collar glamorizes a plain black jacket, turning it into an amazing topper for a winter dinner dance when paired with a long silk skirt.
My wool coat has a rabbit fur liner and I often wear the liner as a long vest over clothes and p.j.s during the winter. I wear it when writing late at night since it keeps the chill off my shoulders. And my kids borrow it any chance they get, wearing it over jeans, T-shirts and Ugg boots in the house during the winter.
Since 50% of your body’s heat is lost through your head, hats are essential for cold-weather dressing. I bought a great one a few years ago from Beck Furs in Albany New York. Run by mink farmer Jeanne Carmel, this store can compete well with the best on the planet. The selection is spectacular, the staff extraordinarily knowledgeable and helpful.
It was at this delightful store that I spotted a fabulous mink hat, festooned with iridescent bead work on the crown. It was not the type of hat I would have ever thought I would buy - not in my wildest dreams - but I tried it on and absolutely loved it. It’s so gorgeous that I set it out on a table in the winter for all to see and appreciate.
It was at this same shop that I purchased another of my favorite buys, a cashmere and fur wrap. In a sumptuous caramel color, rabbit fur strips twirled into "tails" hang from the end. It’s got a western look to it and works well with everything including denim. It’s warm over my shoulders when dining outside as the sun goes down and the evening chill arrives.
Dreaming of Fur
If I were a wealthy woman, an Asian brocaded silk bathrobe with a fur lining would be hanging in my closet right now.
Over Thanksgiving weekend in Park City, Utah in 2009, I fell for a poncho at Alaska Fur Gallery. It was inspired by the designs of Paula Lishman, who invented knitted fur which I’ve spotted year round at the San Luis Obispo's farmers' market and Seattle's Pike's Place, among other places. Warm and light as air, these garments are perfect for travel anywhere, anytime. The one I bought is a caramel-colored fox-and-rabbit extravaganza that is a very wearable piece, classic California casual.
Some years ago I purchased a sheared beaver vest from Furs by Graf. I wear it over jeans for walks with the dog on frosty mornings and chilly evenings. I also like wearing it inside. It's warmer than a sweater during the chill of winter and has saved me a fortune in heating bills.
While I own and love a full-length mink coat, it has never gone to a movie premiere. It's most common use is as a fur robe when running out to get the paper early or while having coffee outside on the patio on frosty winter mornings. I love it as a throw on my bed on chilly nights and on the couch while reading next to a winter fire. It goes with me to Toronto for the February NAFA fur auction when the weather runs 20 to 40 below zero, and to the International Mink Show in Milwaukee in January. It has even travelled to Finland and Holland in the winter and toured a few fur farms on freezing winter days. But it actually gets more wear inside and around the house than outside, something I didn't expect.
A few years ago, I discovered the joys of New Zealand paihamu fur fiber mixed in with Merino wool. These hybrid garments have a comfort range that is broader than wool alone, don't pill and last so much longer than cashmere. Chrys Hutchings of www.Wild-Wool.com and www.eco-luxuryfur.com gave me a scarf I wear all the time and I swear by the socks. I have even tested paihamu boot liners under my leather boots at 40 below. They work great, and add a layer of cushion when standing all day on a cement floor at the fur auctions in February.(1)
I love my paihamu mittens and treasure a ruby throw given as a gift from Weft Knitting when I gave a speech to the New Zealand Fur Council. Plus it's great to be able to contribute to saving New Zealand's biodiversity from this invasive species. Every hunter, trapper and fisherman should try the socks, and the paihamu leather jackets are extraordinary and compete well with those made from cow hides. If you care about habitat loss, anything from paihamu is a great choice.
Which brings me to a pet peeve. Why zoos and aquaria offer only those nasty synthetic (oil-based) plush toys in their gift shops is beyond me. The tags of these non-biodegradable products carry messages about conservation but these products come from a non-renewable resource that is polluting.(2)
Every zoo and aquarium should be selling products made from natural fibers, especially ones that utilize fibers from invasives such as paihamu and nutria. That would really send a strong message about conservation to their client base.
Looking at Dinner Differently
After over a decade of working for mink farmers, I look at dinner differently. When I go to restaurants now, I notice what is not on the plates of the diners around me: all the parts of fish and fowl that we don't consume; expired cheeses and dairy products, the damaged eggs, that didn't make it to market. Then a woman enters wearing a classic full-length mink coat and I note not only how beautiful she looks but recognize the two tons of food production "waste" that were recycled into that wonderful natural fiber garment. Sensitive. And smart.
I've learned a few truths about real, natural, fur fiber:
1) Fur has an amazing range. My black mink jacket takes me from 60 degrees to 40 below zero in complete comfort. No bulky layering. It stands up to snow, sleet, hail and rain, and laughs at mud. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. It makes a great pillow and/or blanket on airplanes, and you'll only need the one coat, even when crossing through five time zones.
2) Fur is easy to maintain. I have a white dog and her fur clings to everything, especially my woolen garments which have to be brushed down every time I play with her. Wool also takes days to dry out after a drenching, and if a taxi sprays mud on it, I have to take it to the cleaners. Not so with fur. Dog hair, water and mud just shake right off. My ten-year-old mink jacket looks as good as it did the day I bought it.
3) A little bit of fur goes a long way. A fur collar added to a summer suit is a great investment. A bit of fur at the wrists and neck gives a lot of warmth for winter dressing. And mixing fur fibers with wool, a process invented in New Zealand, was a breakthrough idea. An addition of a small amount of fur fiber to merino wool expands a garment's "wearability" range by keeping you up to 30% warmer at freezing temperatures without causing overheating on balmy days. These garments also don't pill and last longer.
4) The most common fur worn is sheepskin. As in jackets and boots. Everyone in California has one or the other or both. Ski slopes, the surf and the malls, just count the sheepskin Ugg boots. Ugg boots commonly make the "Top Ten" Christmas wish lists, beating out Barbie and Nintendo.
5) The second most common fur worn is a cowboy hat. The finest are made from beaver felt, so yes, they're fur. Cowboy hats remind us of what all the fuss was about when the Colonies were explored for their riches.
6) Men love fur. Ladies, let's call it an unexpected bonus.
7) The most common comment: That's beautiful.
8) The most common question: Can I touch it?
(1) Learn more about paihamu: 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.
(2) See Plastic bags our backs. FCUSA commentary, Mar. 14, 2008.
This piece was written by Fur Commision USA