Wear Our Heritage
last updated June 1, 2023 by Sheila Schmutz, Saskatoon. [email protected]
Sewing with Natural Fur
The photo above shows a variety of wild Canadian fur pelts, purchased in Winnipeg in December 2015. This helps to illustrate the difference in sizes, although each of these animals could be a bit bigger or a bit smaller. From the left: arctic fox (cased), red fox, young silver fox (still more black than silver), coyote, badger, raccoon, otter, and martin (dyed or touched as furriers often call it).
The beaver (Castor canadensis) is Canada's national animal. It has been harvested and used in the fur trade since the beginning.
Beavers have very thick skin because of their underwater lifestyle. Their fur is extremely dense, although not very long. A beaver pelt is traditionally prepared as an oval, as shown in the photo on the right.
Beaver is a wonderful fur for many purposes. However, it can be difficult to sew by hand, or even machine because the skin is so thick.
The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) is still common in many parts of Canada. It has been used for trim on hats and mittens and gloves for a long time. In earlier times coats were also made of muskrat. The fur is sometimes also called musquash.
Although the muskrat is also a water animal, it's fur is not very oily and is very soft. The pelts are very small.
The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is common in some parts of Canada. It has been used for fur hats and trim for a long time.
Raccoons have relatively thin skin and are therefore easy to sew, even by hand. They have very distinctive markings so matching when piecing is important. The pelt in the photo on the left has been "brightened" in the tanning process. The pelts are relatively small, so gauge your project accordingly.
The coyote (Canis latrans) is very common in western Canada and relatively common in eastern Canada. It has become the major fur used for ruffs on parkas.
Coyotes have very dense hair, that is also very long. The pelts are large. Coyotes vary somewhat in shade, so not all pelts will look quite like the one on the left.
The wolf (Canis lupus) has many coat color variants. The wolf pelt above is very striking because of the contrast between its pale and black hairs. This pelt is still "cased" so looks long and narrow.
The wolf is much larger than a coyote. The fur is also coarser. It is often used for ruffs on hoods of northern parkas.
The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is common across Canada. It's vibrant red color has made it an attractive fur.
Foxes have very dense long hair. The pelts are not very large. Most "red" Red Foxes are very similar in color so combining pelts is usually not difficult. One can easily make a fur collar or hat from one red fox.
However, there are some color variants of the Red Fox that look very different.
The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) only occurs in northern Canada. In winter it is snow white. At other times of year there is a hint of black on the tips of hairs. It is a beautiful fur any time, but is usually harvested when the fur is completely white.
Arctic foxes have very dense long hair. The pelt is smaller than that of a red fox. The pelt in the photo has not been cut open yet. Most fox pelts are sold "cased".
The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is native to North America. It typically lives in the boreal forest. It is not a common fur but is very beautiful. The pelt is relatively small but would be large enough to make a fur collar. The pelt in the photo has not been split open yet (known as "cased" in the fur industry. There is often some white on the underside.
Marten is apparently considered one of the most expensive furs. The American pine marten (Martes americana) on the left has been dyed with a reddish tinge. It is a relatively small animal so one can not make much from a single skin. It is beautifully soft and luxuriant. Sadly it has become rare in several areas so sourcing martin fur, also known as Sable, can be difficult.
There are several species of skunks. They are typically black with white stripes but the number and size of the white stripes can vary. The musk glands of skunks produce an very unpleasant odor, so it is important to find a pelt that has been prepared properly and does not "stink". The pelt is quite small and at least two would be needed to make a fur hat. They provide one of the only natural furs that is black.
The placement of the pelt section with the white stripe has to be considered. Alternatively the white stripe could be cut out of the fur. One pelt was used for the trim on this trapper hat made with Pendleton wool.
There are several subspecies of badger (Taxidea taxus) that live on several continents. It lives in underground burrows which can make getting a good pelt difficult. The fur is very long and muticolored. The leather side has an almost scaly feel so the article should typically be lined, and perhaps padded. I find it one of the most beautiful furs, but it is a bit more difficult to work with than some others.
Because the otter is an animal that lives almost entirely in water, its coat is very dense and thick. Some sources say Sea Otter fur is the densest fur in the world with about 1 million hairs per square inch. The fur is of medium length.
There are Sea Otters and River Otters in North America and Giant Otters in South America, as well as other species in Europe. Please note that because Giant Otter of South America is on a CITIES list it can be difficult to sell or send anything made with otter across international borders. Since 1911 Sea Otthers in North America can only be killed by First Nations people. Therefore most otters available at fur auctions or outlets in Canada are River Otters. The otter shown here is a River Otter, discernable by it's body size which is about 32 inches. Sea Otters are larger than River Otters.
Finding garments made of otter fur would be rare, but it could be used as very nice trim on gloves, mitts, etc. The fur also glistens, which although lovely, means that when one touches it and moves the hairs too much it looks like a blemish.
Ermine is the name of the fur from various species of weasels when their coats are white in the winter.
The photo at the left shows a Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) at the top that is partially changed from its summer color to its winter white. The photo on the bottom is the pelt of a Short-Tailed Weasel (Mustela erminea)
that is in its full winter color, so would be classified as ermine.
Ermine pelts are very small, no matter which species the fur is from and this may explain why it's also been considerable valuable and trimmed many royal garments over the centuries.
Links for Fur and Supplies to Make Natural Fur Garments Yourself
Note that tanned fur, or items made using tanned fur, can be legally
sold and purchased by anyone. However, raw fur pelts can only be purchased
by persons with a fur dealers permit within their own province. Contact
your local or provincial Environment Office for further details.
- International Fur Dressers & Dyers Ltd.
Tanning of furs to garment quality. 385 Dawson Road North, Winnipeg,
Manitoba. They also offer tanned pelts for sale and some hats and other
- Maverick Tannery
Tanning of furs for display. Some tanned fur and handmade garments.
Phone orders can be shipped. Unity, Saskatchewan. They often have booths at craft
shows and powwows too.
- Twig and Squirrel's Wild Goods
504 20th St. West, Saskatoon. Open 11-6 Tues-Sat. This store took
over the bead supply portion of the former "Trading Post". Beginning in
fall 2015, they carry fur pelts. They have an interesting collection
of individual pelts from a wide variety of animals native to
Saskatchewan and Alberta. Moccassins and other handmade items
- Rosy's Handmade Leathercrafts
129 2nd Avenue North, Saskatoon. Rosy specializes in making items from
fur pelts or leather to order. She will also do repairs, such as
replacing a parka fur ruff. She has some fur pelts for sale also.
- Bill Worb Furs, Inc." Tanned leather and fur. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Orders taken by phone or online, plus there is a store in Winnipeg.
- Loose Moose Trading Post Tanned pelts of wild Canadian furs. Grande Cache, Alberta. They can be contacted and pelts mailed.
- Winnipeg Outfitters Inc.
Tanned leather and fur. Winnipeg, Manitoba. Orders taken by phone or online.
They have a clearance outlet at 250 McPhillipps St. in Winnipeg also.
- McFee Workshop
Fur trim strips for parka hoods and wool Inuit-style coats. Wool
duffle, velour, and melton coating. Hat, mukluk, coat patterns.
Sturgeon County, Alberta, near Edmonton. Online or phone ordering
- Fur Canada Fur trim strips and tanned skins. Nanaimo, BC. Online ordering available.
Books and Articles About Sewing with Natural Fur
- How to Sew Leather, Suede, Fur by Phyllis W. Schwebke adn Margaret B. Krohn. 1970 Simon and Shuster. 151 pages. Paperback. Available from Russell Books Ltd, Victoria, BC by mail order. The fur section of this book begins on page 70. It includes details of repairing damaged furs, as well as beginning from pelts. Construction of boas of the vintage variety and shaping of furs for collars, etc. is included.
- Secrets of Eskimo Skin Sewing by Edna Wilder. 1916. 131 pages. Reprinted in 1998 in paperback, available from Amazon. This book is totally about sewing furs and hides. It includes some discussion of pelt preparation and tanning. Patterns for some items that have to be enlarged to scale are included. The text includes many anecdotal stories about Alaska Eskimo customs and ways from earlier days, which makes it very interesting to read.
- The Skinner (or The Furrier) by multiple authors, in German. 1953. Available online.
The Techniques chapter seems to have been written with instructions for a person trying to pass the Master Furrier exam in Germany in 1953. I attach about 7 pages of that chapter in pdf here. Note that German syntax is very different so the translation done using Google Translate sounds grammatically odd. I have edited the very strange bits out. I don't intend to try to do this for the whole chapter because it's a tedious process and I'm not very personally interested in most of it. But it gives you an idea of the content.
- Operating a Fur Sewing Machine by Sheila Schmutz.
Available as a downloadable pdf. This article is my attempt to provide some hints for using a fur sewing machine. Note that some fur trim can be sewn on a traditional sewing machine, using a leather needle, if the machine is sturdily built.
- Threads Magazine is a wonderful source of sewing techniques and inspiration. They have not featured many articles on sewing with natural fur in recent years but there are several good articles in older issues that you may be able to find in your local library. You can also buy an online archival subscription. Interestingly, many of these are by Canadians!
- “Fur Crazy: How to find, repair and care for a vintage bargain” in issue #20 (1989), pg. 64.
- “Clothing for Arctic Survival: Inuit sewing techniques” in issue #27 (1990), pg. 60
- “Fur Handwarmers: Sew a pair of sturdy mittens: in issue #32 (1991), pg. 58.
- “An Elegant Fur Hat Takes Shape: With an ordinary home sewing machine, you can sew a warm winter accessory” in issue #56 (1995), pg. 60.
- “Questions: Removable fur collar/cuffs” in issue #73 (1997), pg. 12.
- “Make a Shearling Coat: in issue #104 (2003), pg. 42 on.
- Although the latest article in Threads is entitled "Faux Fur Collar & Cuffs" in issue 182 (January 2016), most of the same techniques apply to read fur. This article is by Kenneth D. King of New York.
- "The Coat of Many Collars" by Sandra Betzina in Vogue Patterns magazine, Oct/Nov 2011, p. 42-45.
Websites About Sewing with Natural Fur
- Craft by the Fur Information Council of America. This webpage describes the steps used in the production of a garment made with natural fur.
- Fur 101: The value of knowing your pelts by Julie Collins, THE NEWS-MINER “The Voice of Interior Alaska”, Oct. 27, 2013
- Sewing Beaver, Fox, and Lynx Alaskan Style Trapper Hats by Lis, Explore-Build-Do Adventures and creations of like in Alaska, Oct. 21, 2012
- DIY Beaver Mittens by Bjorn Olson, January 5, 2014
- Fur Handbag by Carly Degraeve, as part of the "How Did You Make This?" series. Well illustrated description of how to make a small purse with a metal clasp using rabbit fur.
Videos on Sewing with Natural Fur
This list is not comprehensive. There are many other videos about sewing with faux fur, which is quite different. These videos are about using natural fur, often combined with natural hides. Saga Furs has some wonderful, very instructive videos about profession fur processing, design, and construction. Look for the "Basic Techniques" Series which is free.
- Elk Hide Side Seam Moccasins lined with Beaver Fur lowers and Wool lined, Calf High Uppers Very detailed instructions of the entire step by step process with audio commentary. Hand sewing. (38 minutes).
- How To Make Fur Mittems Very good short video demonstration on making coyote fur mittens using a fur sewing machine (4 minutes).
- How To Sew a Fur Headband by Mary Babic from Cordova, Alaska on how to make a fur headband/neck scarf. 16 min YouTube video, part of the Heritage Chugachmiut series.
- Saga Furs Mink Grading This video with audio commentary explains how fur, in this case ranched mink, is graded.
- How It's Made: Fur Tanning This 5 minute video with audio commentary has been made by the Discovery Channel. It explains how fur, in this case beaver, is garment tanned in a commercial setting.
Smart Sewing with Fake Fur
This is a DVD made by Kenneth King and sold by Taunton, the publisher of Threads magazine, among others. He begins by saying that although the DVD is a "how to" for sewing a faux fur jacket, many of the techniques apply to natural fur too. This is especially true for the lining and finishing. Cold taping of seams is explained very well. Of course there is nothing about matching pelts, or "letting out" for example because those techniques would not be used with fake fur. It is well made, with wonderful closeup photography, and he speaks very clearly throughout.
- "The Practical Furrier": A Book for the Instruction in the Art of Fur Making and Repairing; the First and Only Publication of Its Kind in the World by Louis Lichetenstein. 1916. Atlantic Coast Printing Corporation. 27 pages. This little book has been digitized and is available online. Although parts of it are dated, that is of historical interest. There are detailed diagrams for "letting out" or "droppig" skins.
- Advanced Fur Craftsmanship: Improved Fur Techniques in All Peltries Commonly Used by the Practical Furrier. by Samuel Raphael and Henry W. Rosley. 1948. Fur Craftsmanship Publishers. 242 pages. This long book has been digitized and is available online. There are illustrations on how to seam various types of pelts (p 28-30) and letting out. However, the bulk of this book is divided into sections of 3 to 5 pages on working with each specific type of fur animal (p. 37-209).
Advanced Techniques - Inspirational Websites and Videos
- Red Fox real fur blanket: how to make. by Deanna McCormick. 36 min YouTube video. She demonstrates how to wet stretch your pelts, nail or tack your pelts to a nailing board, mark and trim your pelts, sew and join your pelts together and how to line your blanket. 22 July 2021.
- Fur Techniques: Creating fur fashion starts with technique by the Fur Council of Canada. This webpage shows an image of some techniques used with fur, with a description about the technique. Included is: Letting out, Leathering, knitting, and skin on skin.
- Techniques: Creating fur fashion starts with technique by Saga Furs. This webpage shows an image of the look of fur after a particular modern technique has been used. Most photos can be clicked to view an accompanying video.
- Fur Vision New York 2015 by Saga Furs. This video shows many fur pieces made with very modern techniques and the designers who plan to use them in new ways.
- The Magic of Fendi: A Fur Story by Fendi. This webpage links one to several videos. The fur story illustrates the steps in the creation of several very modern fur garments.
Fitting a Fur
This is a Radio Canada production about a fur sewing course at Nunavut Arctic College, taught by Diane Giroux (now of Kenomenee Leathers in Nova Scotia). Although it is not a "how-to" video, it provides insight and inspiration about design using natural fur.
- How to Make Fur Coats This 5 minute video with audio commentary explains industrial sewing of fur garments, including new texture techniques, etc. This would not be particularly applicable to a craft sewer but does provide some "inspiration". It was made by the Discovery Channel.
- Business of Fur This video shows how a fur vest with an intricate pattern is made from start to finish.
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