CREATURE COMFORTS: FUR RUFFS

Featured in the Sept/Oct 2007 Issue of Mushing Magazine:

For many centuries fur ruffs have been a part of living in the north. They are both beautiful and practical. We had a chance to talk to some of the experts in the fur ruff business and we have learned why we still use fur ruffs and what it takes to make a good ruff.

Miki and Julie Collins, who have been trapping in the Alaskan bush all of their lives, say “There is no man-made substitute for a good fur ruff.” Protecting us from the cold, ruffs create an air pocket around your face, which allows you to breathe without getting your clothes wet. Wet clothing around your body and face is very dangerous, especially when you are in temperatures at around -40° F.

Many products are available to protect your face from wind, like Neoprene. “The neoprene freezes when you breathe on it and it loses its insulating properties,” says Grant Beck of Yellowknife.Beck has been a musher since he was 8, and raised by his hunting and trapping family, he has trapped and made his ruffs in the past, but his other businesses have taken up his time.

The Beck family still makes their ruffs, but for those less fortunate, there are places like the Alaska Raw Fur Company that purchase furs from remote trappers all over Alaska and create beautiful products or have tanned hides available so you can try your hand at making your own products.

When deciding about buying or making a fur ruff, there are a few things to consider. The first is which fur you will use, and if more than one species, which ones and what combinations?One common fur used is coyote. Cabelas use coyote on their Trans-Alaska Suit; one of the most popular suits for Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers.

Mark Estrada, the product manager for Cabelas outerwear says, “As you may know we are very particular in the quality of the fur that goes on our garments.  It is a performance feature and not a fashion statement. I buy all my ruffs out of Canada and only Grade A top quality, fully furred heavy winter pelts are used.  Western Canada near the Rocky Mountain region is known for its heavy, quality coyote fur and that is why we buy from this region.

It is the best quality fur on the market.”Another popular fur is wolf. Wolf is durable, and warm and comes in a variety of natural colors. The long guard hairs provide a long full ruff that traps a lot of air, providing a very warm pocket around your face. The hair is thick and strong with few breakages, which makes a durable long-lasting ruff. One downfall a wolf has is its under-fur which is long and thick. This is the first place for frost to accumulate, building up and weighing on your forehead.

This frost build-up is dangerous as it can drop the ruff causing poor visibility and also frostbite. One way to remedy the problem is to line the front of the ruff with wolverine which has shorter underfur.“Wolverine is especially valued for ruffs”, says Miki and Julie, “the smooth hair shafts do not hold the frost as tightly as other furs whose hair shafts have microscopic scales that frost clings to.” The wolverine fur is not as soft as the wolf, but what it lacks in feel, it makes up for in durability and usefulness.

“Wolverine on the front of a ruff is firstly for safety,” says Sandy from Alaska Raw Fur Company. Sandy says that while the saying that ‘wolverine does not frost up’ is not entirely true, it does frost up, it just holds the frost well instead of drooping. “Looking at our customer records, wolf/wolverine is very popular and the most affordable ruff. It is more affordable than straight wolverine.” Beck, in Yellowknife, uses straight wolverine on his ruffs.

The northern Canadian furs are thick and have long guard hairs. He says that the furs around Yellowknife are nice, but the furs from up in the north of Canada are super nice. Many people in coastal regions of the Arctic use straight wolverine for its warmth and protection. Attaching the ruff is another consideration. Many prefer a ruff that is permanently attached to a hood or parka. Others prefer a removable ruff. Beck prefers his ruff to be permanently attached, “I find it is much better when you are running and racing dogs and the wind is blowing – you don’t want the ruff coming off.

Sometimes the Velcro comes apart, and the snap buttons come apart. Our ruffs are attached to our hoods, and when we don’t need them we take the hood off the jacket.” It is advised by Alaska Fur Company to have a removable ruff, that way the ruff can be put onto many jackets with a zipper or Velcro. Though, a removable ruff also brings the potential of a walking ruff; it has been known for beautiful removable ruffs to be taken from jackets.

A zipper is a little more work to get the ruff off and keeps it in place better. Making ruffs is an art. To buy a ruff, they run anywhere from $40 and up. Miki and Julie say that $200 will buy a particularly nice ruff. But the price will go even further up for larger and more beautiful ruffs. If you have the time to learn, making your ruff may be the way to go. One book that can get you started is The Secrets of Eskimo Skin Sewing by Edna Wilder.

The process starts with choosing a fur, and a pelt. Not all pelts are suitable for ruffs, and they need to be chosen for their quality of tanning, skin and hairs. “A good quality ruff has no holes, broken hair, or bald spots,” says Miki and Julie. Miki and Julie tell us, “A pelt needs to be well-tanned before it can be used. Look at the skin, it should be pale or whitish in color.

Old skin slowly darkens to buff and eventually develops a yellowish or brownish hue often indicating the skin has started to rot and is not durable. Freshly tanned hide with this yellowish hue was poorly fleshed and is already starting to rot. A thumbnail pressed firmly into the hide should not poke a hole in, nor should it tear when stretched gently between the fingers. (Fox and lighter pelts tear more easily).”Once a fur has been selected, the skin needs to be split (in most cases) and blocked – a stretching process that takes out the extra stretch and makes the pelt uniform.

The hide is marked into two to three 3-inch strips, depending on the width of the material. The pieces are then cut out and pieces are put together based on uniformity and hair length, and sewn together – usually by machine, or by hand (very time-consuming). This is the letting out process, which utilizes the most fur from the animal and expands the area of the longest hairs from around the hackle area.

This also allows for a more dramatic effect in the ruff, like the fancy Alaskan “sunburst” that have appearance of an extra long, extra thick ruff.A ruff should be at least long enough to attach to the entire rim of a parka hood, and are usually 2 – 6 inches wide but can be much wider and longer (and more expensive). The width of the ruff is measured on the skin side from the tips of the guard hairs on either side of the ruff.

Other furs that are useful for ruffs are beaver and lynx, but they do not have long guard hairs. One other fur to consider is a ranch-raised fur called Finn Coon. This is an animal native to Siberia and China. It is farmed in Finland for its thick long hair, and consistent coloring in shades of browns through white. This is a less expensive choice.

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