Ask most people what fur is good for and they’ll say it keeps the wearer – animal or human –…
Ask most people what fur is good for and they’ll say it keeps the wearer – animal or human - warm. True enough, but some types of fur are so much warmer than others, and the reasons why may surprise you. In this first of a series to introduce some of the amazing facts about fur, we’ve planned a hunting and fishing trip and now it's time to plan our wardrobe. We’re headed to the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and we need to dress for the occasion!
Nunavut is actually the size of Western Europe, so even though almost the whole territory is classed as having a polar climate, there are considerable differences in weather and hours of sunlight. Time of year also makes a big difference. So let’s narrow it down and say we’re headed for the capital of Iqaluit at 63°N, in late March.
We’ll have about 6 hours of sunlight a day, enough for some good hunting or fishing close to home. But with average temperatures for March at -28°C, and a record low of -44°C, we can forget our birdspotter’s anorak. Heck, with wind chill factored in, the mercury once hit -62°C, so you might be tempted to leave your entire wardrobe at home, but don't. Jeans and sneakers will get a lot of use when we're not actually out on the land or ice.
It’s time to plan our new wardrobe and then figure out how to get it, because it's not going to be from your typical downtown furrier. Mink, fox or chinchilla are not up to the job, plus we'd prefer not to run up a huge cleaning bill on our return.
What we’re after is fur that’s full of holes.
Hollow Hairs Please
One of the key functions of fur in nature is thermoregulation: helping furbearers stay cool in hot weather and, more importantly, warm when it’s freezing. This is achieved primarily by means of insulation, and one of the greatest insulators is air. Or, to be more precise, trapped air.
Heat travels more slowly through air than through solids or liquids, (For comparison, water is 24 times more effective at conducting heat than air.) Furbearers take advantage of this by trapping air between the dense hairs of their underfur, then sealing it in with their long guard hairs. For us humans, it's a case of dressing in layers: two thin sweaters, with a layer of air between, keep us warmer than one thick one.
But some furbearers, mostly species of deer, have taken it to the next level. Not only do their guard hairs help trap air in the underfur, but those guard hairs also have air trapped permanently inside each one! Commonly known as “hollow” hairs, think more in terms of a honeycomb center, with countless tiny pockets of air. (Click here for an example of a scanning electron micrograph of red deer hairs.)
So we’re going to go with a local favourite in Nunavut, caribou fur.
Caribou must endure bitter cold for months at a time, and they don’t even shiver. How do they do it? It's not all in the fur; a highly efficient means of minimising heat loss known as countercurrent heat exchange functions in their legs and nasal passages. But the key is their winter coats, three inches thick and covering them from nose to hooves, all topped off with those hollow hairs. (Interestingly, it is also these hollow hairs that cause caribou to swim so high out of the water, further conserving heat.)
So we’ll start with a couple of knee-length parkas, not for alternate days but to wear as a pair if needed. The outer parka, worn on its own with the fur on the outside, will be for less cold weather or trips close to home when a sudden change in the weather just means a sprint home. The inner parka will be added, with the fur facing our body (yes, we'll need a shirt or other kind of lining!), when the mercury plummets or we're traveling farther afield.
Since we're not dressing to impress but looking for utilitarian wear, we'll go with plain parkas, not the decorated versions commonly associated with Inuit culture. Caribou hair sheds easily and the hollow shafts are constantly breaking, so decorated parkas are for special occasions only (and for sale to tourists).
And since it's not mid-winter, we'll go with summer caribou skins, which are also those generally used for garments. The hair is shorter than winter skins so they're not as warm, but this also makes them less prone to shedding. Summer skins are also easier to dress than winter skins, and while dressing is said to reduce warmth, it does make them more durable.
And if you're ready to go totally native, caribou pants and socks come next, both with the fur on the inside, then caribou mittens and kamik (traditional footwear) to round off your ensemble.
A word of caution though. Unless you're actually out on the land or ice, dressing head to toe in caribou will make you stand out from the crowd. Plus, propping up the bar in Iqaluit will very quickly cause you to overheat! That's where the jeans and sneakers come in.
Before you shell out for your parkas, though, pay particular attention to their most important feature: the hood lining. It must be hydrophobic.
OK, we don’t literally want it to be “hydrophobic” or it would be scared of water. What we want is a strong “hydrophobic effect”, meaning it appears to repel water. (There is no actual repulsion involved, just an absence of attraction.)
The hydrophobic effect can be found everywhere and is essential to life on Earth. Observe a droplet of dew on a leaf. The water and the leaf want nothing to do with each other, to the point where the dew forms a sphere. The hydrophobic effect is also seen in all fur, but some types are more hydrophobic than others.
And why is a hydrophobic hood lining so important? Well, here’s what happens if you don’t have one. You’re out one day when a blizzard blows in and the temperature suddenly drops to -30°C. You pull up your hood with its big, fluffy synthetic lining and laugh at Mother Nature. Next thing you know, your breath is freezing on the lining which then freezes to your face. Lesson learned. You’ll never wear a synthetic hood lining again, at least not in the Arctic.
Better to do it right the first time and go with the ultimate in hydrophobic hood lining, wolverine fur. Since that is not always available, northern grey wolf makes an excellent second choice.
But we also need a second outfit, still for time on the land, but for days when caribou will make us feel like a baked potato. The sky is clear and the forecast is for temperatures around freezing. There's a chance of rain and slush underfoot, so being waterproof is paramount. It's time for Nature’s raincoat, sealskin.
People from down south often assume sealskin must be the ultimate in cold-weather clothing, but it’s not the case, and that’s because the species used – mainly ringed seals, as in Nunavut, and harp seals – have no underfur. Sometimes known as "hair seals", their pelts are composed entirely of short, shiny guard hairs.
The "flat" fur that comes from hair seals is not as warm as "true" fur (with underfur), like caribou, but it has some real pluses. Because there is no underfur, sealskin is light. It is also incredibly durable, more so than any other flat fur like calf or antelope (which is why it's used to make rope). Its structure resists wind, its oil content repels rain, and its porosity allows it to breathe (which is why it also makes great tents).
And oh yes, it's virtually waterproof, which is why it's used to skin kayaks.
Sealskins, then, are the Arctic's warm, wet-weather clothing, "warm", of course, being a relative term. Mittens, a lighter parka, and most definitely sealskin boots therefore make it on to our shopping list.
And now comes the hard part. It's so hard, in fact, that if you're planning a quick in-and-out visit to Nunavut, you're not going to be wearing caribou or ringed seal anyway, so just pack the best of the rest. Unfortunately, buying an outfit of traditional Nunavut clothing is, like hollow hairs and hydrophobia, amazing - amazingly hard!
Forget about buying outfits off the peg, in Iqaluit or anywhere else. It's not going to happen, though not for want of trying. Efforts have been made in Nunavut over the years to establish a garment industry with ensured availability from suppliers and standardised sizes and prices, but all to no end. The workforce with the necessary skills - older women, with kids to care for, working from home - have not taken to the idea of a production line.
So what to do? You can sign up for an expensive sport-hunting package and get the clothing, including a decorated parka made of dressed skins, thrown in. Finding someone to make it then becomes your tour operator's headache.
Or you turn up in Iqaluit, ask around, negotiate hard, and be prepared to pay $1,500+ for a plain caribou parka, pants, kamik and mittens - and that's summer skins, probably not dressed. If you're staying a month, it should be ready by the time you're heading home.
The good news is that Canadian harp seal garments can be bought on-line (here or here, for example), provided you don't live in a country that denies you the freedom to import them. Which brings us to the last amazing fact about seal fur.
Almost all sealskin garments come from healthy populations of either harp seals or ringed seals. So healthy are these populations that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies both harp and ringed seals as "Least Concern".
And yet two of the biggest potential markets for seal products, the US and the EU, are closed for no good reason.
The US has banned imports of all seal products since 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, legislation that is fiercely defended by the nation's animal activist community.
In the EU, the ban went into effect in 2009, since when the European Commission has made a pig's ear of justifying it because it can't. Everyone knows the ban was passed not for any rational reason, or even to satisfy popular demand, but because it was bought and paid for by lobbyists in Brussels working for animal rights groups.
Now, true to their reputation for feeble-minded solutions (like the bendy banana law), Brussels' finest have sought to placate Canada's angry Inuit by exempting them from the ban. Not surprisingly, many Inuit representatives have called the gesture colonialistic and racist, so we'll see how that works out!
Truly, the politics of fur are no less amazing than the science and cultural traditions of this beautiful, warm and sustainable natural resource. Send us a postcard from Iqaluit!