Choosing the best fur for you is like choosing a car. Most of us can’t afford a different car for every activity or need, so we pick the important ones – say, school runs and camping – and buy accordingly. Furs are the same. Unless we can afford a different fur for every occasion, we need to choose carefully with our personal lifestyles in mind.
The first question is easy: what will be your fur’s primary function? As cars are to get from A to B, so furs are for keeping us warm.
But again as with cars, furs usually have to be multi-functional. Yes, we want to keep warm as we go about our daily activities, but we probably also want to look great on a night out. So the second question is often, how do we balance beauty with functionality?
Before you start picking out styles and fur types, ask yourself how you’ll be wearing your fur. Will you be mushing dogs across Alaska (in which case comfort and warmth trump sophisticated styling), or will you be sipping martinis on the patio in California?
Apart from warmth and beauty, some other considerations include:
- Durability. Mushing dogs takes its toll on any clothing, sipping martinis not so much.
- Cost. Furs can run from a few hundred dollars to the price of a small house. But the best fur for you may not be the most expensive.
- Fur type. All furs are not equal – mink and chinchilla are as different as chalk and cheese. And remember that furriers usually stock the most popular types. If you’ve got your heart set on skunk or New Zealand possum, be ready to shop around.
- Your gender. Most fur types are unisex, although men’s garments tend to be less ostentatious than those for women. Still, otter, fisher, coyote and other rugged furs are often appreciated by the guys, while more delicate furs like chinchilla are usually for the ladies (or Floyd Mayweather and various rappers).
So let’s run through some scenarios and help decide the best fur for you.
Priority: Keeping Warm
Most furs have two types of hair – long, shiny guard hairs and short, fine underfur. The guard hairs are what we usually see, and they protect the animal from branches and other obstacles, while the dense, soft underfur does most of the insulating. So furs with delicate guard hairs, like fox, or none at all, like chinchilla, can be lightweight and warm but are fragile, requiring lots of tender loving care.
The most popular furs – including mink, beaver, marten (Canadian sable), coyote, and others – combine beautiful, protective guard hair with the warmth of soft, dense underfur.
Many furs (mink, beaver and others) are now “plucked”, meaning that the guard hairs have been removed, and/or “sheared” down to the height of the underfur or shorter. This reduces the weight of the garment, and provides a sleeker silhouette while maintaining much of the warmth.
A shearling coat is made from sheepskin, with the wool sheared down to reduce bulkiness. (Think Uggs.) Shearling is often worn “reversed”, with the fur side in, against the body, increasing warmth. This is how most furs were once worn when warmth was the primary concern. In fact, our word “fur” comes from the Old French “fourrer”, literally meaning “stuffed”.
Some furs (cow, calf and seal) are called “flat” furs because they have no underfur, only guard hairs. While beautiful, these furs are not much warmer than a good leather coat.
Caribou, worn by traditional hunters in the Arctic regions, is remarkably warm because it has hollow guard hairs, but that’s not something you’re likely to find at your local fur store or fashion boutique. In any case, it makes you look like, well, a caribou.
In summary, if keeping warm is absolutely paramount in your decision-making, check out what the pros use: mushers, polar explorers, and ice fishermen. But if you want to stay cozy while looking great in normal winter conditions, most popular furs will do the job.
Scenario #1: Ice-fishing in Nunavut. You’re dressing to stay alive, so a knee-length caribou parka with sealskin boots are perfect. If you can’t find a caribou parka, try one with a rugged fabric shell filled with goose down, and fur trim on the cuffs, hem and hood to keep the wind at bay. Wolverine is considered by Arctic Inuit to be the most effective hood ruff, but wolf, coyote or fox also work well. Research suggests that the uneven length of natural fur hairs disrupts air currents that can rob heat from around the face. Whatever the reason, a fur-trimmed hood is a “must” in cold temperatures; it really works.
#2: Après ski. You want to be warm and look spectacular, while doing nothing more strenuous than raising your glass. For the ladies, didn’t Audrey Hepburn look great in Charade in sheared mink with a matching pillbox hat and giant sunglasses? Mink has very dense underfur, so even with the guard hairs sheared, you’ll still be toasty. For really chilly evenings, consider a fox or, better still, a chinchilla jacket. Despite being ultra-lightweight and super soft, chinchilla has extraordinarily dense underfur. Pair yourself with a ruggedly handsome man in coyote or long-hair (unsheared) beaver for the full experience!
Priority: Keeping Dry
Keeping dry is part of keeping warm, because being wet greatly increases the wind chill effect. Underfur that is unprotected by sturdy guard hairs absorbs water, so if you’re expecting damp weather, avoid chinchilla and rabbit, as well as furs that have been sheared or plucked. If you expect your apparel to be exposed to rain very often, you have three smart choices: flat fur, a “reversed” fur or fur lining, or fur with plentiful, long guard hairs.
Flat furs are the most water-resistant of all furs because they are nothing but guard hairs. The most durable of these is sealskin. Sometimes called “nature’s raincoat”, sealskin is so waterproof it has been used to make kayaks! But remember that because flat furs have no underfur, they are not that warm. Also, because the leather is quite thick, they are not light-weight, and are not suited to figure-hugging garments. (Note: Sealskin cannot be sold or imported into the US. This law was implemented in 1972, before modern regulations were in place to ensure sustainable hunting practices; it has unfortunately not yet been amended.)
Another way to keep warm and dry is to wear a reversed fur, or a jacket made with a water-resistant material and a fur lining. The most common reversed fur is shearling. Once bulky (think WWI aviator jackets), they are now made in a wide range of beautiful and sophisticated styles. Fur-lined raincoats or jackets can be worn year-round if you opt for a removable lining.
While full fur coats are not ideal for heavy rain, most good-quality beaver, muskrat, marten and other furs have long guard hairs whose natural oiliness repels water to a certain extent. If your furs get wet, never dry them near radiators or intense heat. Just shake off excess water and hang your garment to dry slowly with good ventilation. If your fur gets really soaked, it’s usually best to consult a professional furrier.
In this age of fast, disposable fashion, it’s gratifying that most furs can last for decades, especially with professional cleaning and storage. But some are more durable than others. The least durable are furs without strong guard hairs, such as rabbit and chinchilla, which may shed if rubbed a lot (think shoulder bag straps). The most durable are otter, beaver, and mink, with raccoon, coyote, and marten not far behind.
Natural furs tend to last longer than those that have been sheared, plucked, or dyed.
So, you want a jacket that can survive 20 years of real-life use before being passed on to your son or daughter? Mink is hard to beat, but you can also try long-hair or sheared beaver, marten, coyote, raccoon, or fisher.
Are you an attention grabber, or do you prefer to be discreet?
If you’ve just won Best Actress and want the world to know, a long-haired fur is for you. Associated with flash and glamour, nothing gives the movie star / rapper look like a fox coat, with its long, shiny guard hairs and spectacular natural colours. For men, long-hair beaver, fisher and coyote are bulkier and coarser, and often used for parka trim, but in a full-length coat give instant Mountain Man credibility.
For more sophisticated elegance, nothing beats mink. But sheared furs – or a fur-lined jacket or parka – also give you the luxury and warmth of fur without making a big deal about it.
For those who want something new, technological advances mean designers now have more room for creative expression than ever before. The classic mink coat has been reinvented for a more modern look, but all furs can now be transformed with shearing, leathering, knitting, intarsia, dyeing and many other techniques. Sheared mink can be made so light and supple, just dye it green and people will wonder what exotic new fabric you’re wearing! Knitted fur is also very light, and as flexible as a woollen sweater.
Few fur fans can afford a $100,000 full-length chinchilla coat like Floyd Mayweather, but don’t be discouraged. Entry-level fur garments have two fewer zeroes, and accessories are half that again.
The main factors determining cost are the type of fur, the quality of the pelts, the size of the garment, and the processing and manufacturing techniques required to make it. The price of the same fur type can vary widely, depending on the quality of the pelts used and the workmanship involved. Top-quality mink, sable, marten (Canadian sable), fisher, bobcat, lynx, and chinchilla are some higher-priced furs.
Popular furs in the middle price range (say, $5,000 to $10,000 for a full-length coat) include good-quality mink, fox and beaver. Muskrat, possum, raccoon, and good-quality shearling may cost half that. Cheapest of all are rabbit (sometimes known as the “great imitator” because it can be made to look like just about anything else) and lower-end sheepskin, a durable product that’s only cheap because the pelts are so readily available.
As for size, obviously a full-length coat costs more than a jacket, which costs more than a vest, and so on down. Many fur fans start out with fur-trimmed hoods, collars, scarves or mittens, which are not only affordable but also flexible in how they are worn. A fur vest, for example, can be worn under a jacket in winter, or on its own in spring.
Another cost factor to consider is cleaning. Darker furs hide dirt better, while long guard hairs are good at repelling dirt that might otherwise get stuck in the underfur.
Bottom line: take your time when choosing the best fur for you. Visit several boutiques and, ideally, a specialized retail furrier. Fur-working techniques and styling have changed so much over recent years that you will be surprised by the wide range of choices available. The research is a pleasure in itself. The good news is that, thanks to the creativity of a new generation of young designers, there’s never been a better time to choose the best fur for your taste and lifestyle!