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Fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing we know. The fur industry is one of North America's oldest and most historically significant industries.
Nearly 400 years ago, when the New World was just beginning to be settled, fur was in great demand in Europe. The tremendous demand lured the early frontiersmen to explore the interior of the continent in search of pelts. Soon, trading posts began to pop up from Nova Scotia in Canada to what is today New York and Chicago. Trappers and explorers sold their pelts and purchased provisions from these trading posts. These posts became the base of a new economy and the center of new settlements.
Through the centuries, men and women alike have donned fur for a variety of reasons from the practical to the fashionable. Centuries later, the fur trade continues to thrive. Today, fur is as popular as ever because of its exceptional warmth, superior durability, and stunning beauty. In the United States, one in five women owns a fur coat.
The fur industry expands beyond the borders of the United States. Fur is a global commodity that is traded in international markets. The heart of the U.S. fur industry is in New York City. The "fur district" spreads out over several blocks in the center of the city's garment district.
Before a fur garment reaches the fur district and is available to consumers, it goes through numerous stages. The fur industry is divided into several sectors: retailers, manufacturers, intermediaries (brokers, buyers and dealers), auctions, country collectors, fur farmers, and trappers. Pelts pass through these various sectors on the way to becoming beautiful fur garments. Once the fur has been harvested, the pelts are auctioned and sent to dressing plants. Here, the pelts are processed before being sent to manufacturers who then design and craft the pelts into garments. The completed product travels to the retail store where it is sold to the consumer.
Fur garments are the product of meticulous craftsmanship. In an age of increasing standardization and mass production, the fur trade continues to preserve skills and values which have been passed down from generation to generation. Because every fur pelt is unique, creating a fur coat can never be "automated." From the production and dressing of pelts through the design and manufacture of the finished garment, the fur trade is still characterized by small, family-run businesses.
Furriers generally purchase their pelts at international auctions. Major North American auctions are held several times a year in New York, Seattle, Toronto and North Bay, Canada. Auctions are also held around the world.
At the auctions, buyers from the fashion centers of the world, speaking a dozen different languages, bid for each batch of pelts as it is presented. It takes a keen eye, strong nerves, and a lifetime of experience to master the auction. A furrier's success in the coming year depends on the decisions made in the final moments before the auctioneer's hammer falls. At the auctions, the rules of supply and demand come into play. When consumer demand is high, pelt prices generally increase. The price of pelts at auction determine the price of fur garments at the retail level.
From the auction house, pelts are sent for tanning or "dressing," as the process is called within the industry. After the dressing process is complete, the pelts emerge as shiny, silky fur and soft, supple leather.
The dressing process preserves the pelts and therefore, is one of the most critical steps in the making of a fur garment adding to its durability.
Dressers in the U.S. are regulated by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The fur industry supports the strict regulations that seek to protect the environment, as well as those employed in the fur trade.
The craft of making a fur garment requires hours of skilled work by hand through every stage. The dressed pelts are sent to manufacturers, where the creation of a garment begins with the designer. Many of the world's most renowned designers use fur in their designs and ready-to-wear collections. Some of the most notable are Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Bob Mackie. In fact, more designers are working with fur today than ten years ago.
Once the designer has created their design, the manufacturer makes the pattern, from which each pelt must be cut. The pelts are wet, stretched, and tacked to a special table called a "blocking" table. This enables the furrier to shape and soften the pelts. A highly skilled craftsman called a "cutter" slices the pelts. Finally, the pelts are sewn together.
A more common intricate craft is the "letting-out" process where each pelt is cut into narrow diagonal strips. They are then meticulously sewn back together, with hundreds of tiny seams, into a longer, narrow band. This "letting out" process is one of the secrets to creating a supple, flowing garment.
In all, it takes about one full year, from the time the furs are harvested and sent to auction, until the finished fur garment is ready for the consumer.
There are more than 1,500 retail stores across the United States that specialize in fur garments. While some retail establishments are large, chain operations with many locations, most fur retailers -- over 85% -- are small, family-owned and operated businesses.
The fur industry is involved in a variety of business activities which generate economic benefits for all segments of society.
Furriers purchase raw materials, equipment and many types of services. Through these activities, the fur industry adds billions of dollars to fur and non-fur businesses, such as utilities, accounting and insurance firms, trucking and transportation industries. In 1990, the fur trade produced a total economic benefit of more than $4.4 billion and supported over 100,000 jobs.
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