The door in my wardrobe*

*the door not actually being there was a disappointment - but at least I was allowed to play with the clothes

//// Vintage how-to — fur

Posted on | January 3, 2010 | 43 Comments

Ok. I just wonder if it is possible to write about fur without saying what you think about it. I have stated my opinion here earlier, but I will do it again, just in case. But this is not opinion post, this is about choosing, caring, maintaining and repairing second hand fur.

I think that keeping and killing animals just for fur does not fit to contemporary society, I don’t want to encourage it and for that reason I would never consider new fur. But on the other hand I am carnivorous — and I sure hope that all parts of the animal end up in good use — including skin and fur. So, maybe I could consider for example lamb fur — but so far I haven’t bought any new fur garments.

I also wish that everything that human being has manufactured will be used to it’s full value. For that reason I like the idea of using second hand fur, until it falls apart. The material lasts for generations if handled well and the use value of fur is really good in this northern climate.

For all valuable fur I strongly suggest professional care. But you can get lesser quality second hand fur for bargain prices — and in that case you might be curious to mend and maintain it yourself. If you have at least a bit common sense and some basic skills in sewing, I truly encourage you to try rather than leave the precious material to deteriorate, the maintenance adds up years, maybe tens of years to the furs mileage.

How to pick a good fur from charity shop?

When you evaluate the condition of the fur in the second hand shop, the hair itself tells a little. Usually fur retains it’s shine and softness easily.

You should pay more attention to the leather under the hair. Does it feel soft and supple — or brittle and hard, or paper like? Does it leave dust or more coarse residue to your hands? Can you find tears, usually from seams, check especially underarm, middle back, side seams, elbows and around the collar. Does the fur shed hair?

If there are no major tears and the hair seems to be relatively well attached to the skin even brittle skinned, hardened or slightly papery fur can be saved. Note that some furs are relatively prone for shedding even in decent condition, rabbit is a good example.

Check also marks of possible insect damage (small, usually round holes, broken hair or bald spots in small but distinct areas) and staining, with pale fur especially around the collar. To see possible yellowing you might need to see the fur in natural light, tungsten light is so warm colored that it can camouflage light yellowing. See also sleeve openings and inner collar, these areas can be dirty and/or badly worn.

Everyday care for all fur

  • Never storage your fur in plastic — and don’t use mothballs or cedar or any other substances with strong smells to preserve it. If moths are nuisance in your apartment you should take your fur coat to professional storage for summertime. In Finland moths are not a big problem (personally I have never encountered those), but even here the professional storage might be good idea, especially if you live in modern apartment with dry, air conditioned air — it is just too dry to keep the fur in top shape. Both excessive dryness and excessive moisture are bad for fur. Dryness makes the skin age fast and it comes brittle and prone to tearing, moisture encourages the insects and — in bad cases — mold. Cool space is better for fur storage than warm.
  • Let your fur to breathe. Use a sturdy, wide shouldered hangar for it and be sure to not to squeeze it between other garments. Avoid hanging stuff over the fur and if you bag the fur for storage, use fabric pouch or uncolored paper pouch for protection, never plastic. You can even add some tissue paper inside the collar (make a sort of extra collar out of it, so that it raises the pouch slightly to the air) to avoid pressure and protect the shoulders.
  • Avoid carrying your bag on shoulder when wearing fur.
  • If the fur gets wet in a rain, no problem. Just shake excess water out of it and let it dry freely in normal room temperature. Don’t use heat. If the fur is soaked, take it to the professional when it has dried.
  • Small stains can be removed from fur with Marseille soap and bit of water — or 50/50 water-rubbing alcohol mixture. You need a sponge or cloth that does not stain or leave any residue. When using soap and water, don’t wet the fur. Just keep the sponge lightly moist and rub the stain so that the soap makes just a bit foam. In the end rinse the sponge well and remove all foam residue with moist sponge (you might need rinse the sponge several times and keep stroking the fur with moist sponge). With alcohol the process is essentially same, moisten the sponge with mixture and squeeze excess of it out. Rub the stain carefully, no need to rinse. You can always test your method of cleaning to some hidden place, this might be wise especially with dyed fur.
  • A professional can condition your fur, this should be done in 2 – 3 years intervals to keep the fur in top shape. The brittleness of the skin means that you need to hurry.
  • Finland is not exactly a paradise for second hand shopper. Well edited second hand boutiques are sparse and relatively expensive, charity shops are stinky and full of crap (FYI, personally I prefer these smelly, full of crap places to well edited — and well priced ones, anytime. Nothing beats the joy of real bargain find!). But you can find great fur here in bargain prices. I guess that because of this miserable climate (-26 degrees Celsius today) the fur has been a staple in Finnish wardrobe. And lots of good stuff has been carried to charity shops. I picked my gray rabbit fur from Valtteri flea market for 10€ — and that one is real quality fur. The coat you see in the first image is from UFF 5€ days, although furs were bit more expensive, maybe that 10€. Both are great places for bargain fur finds in Helsinki, and you can also try Salvation Army charity shops.

DIY conditioning & repairing after the jump

DIY conditioning and repairing

Now we come to the tips and tricks part of this post.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not a furrier. I have grown up in the area where fur farms were common sight and fur was quite essential part of middle and high class woman’s wardrobe. However I did not learn my skills there, these things are a combination of common knowledge and my somewhat limited — but very self-educative — experiences with second hand fur.

I’m going to walk through a specific project to illustrate the basic ideas, and I’m adding the images to this post gradually. The stole I bought for my mom is really beautiful brown mink with light gray cast. The main part of the lining is in good condition, just light staining and yellowing, no tears. A small tear on the lining of the collar.  The skin feels slightly brittle and dry — and there are two teared areas in the skin. One tear on the shoulder — this looks like someone has pulled the hem and the skin does not feel particularly fragile from here. Another one is near the collar seam and this is worse. Actually all main seam areas of this fur feel bit hardened and brittle.

Pre-conditioning
When I start to work with second hand fur I usually freeze it first. Freezing kills insects and germs, it also removes some odors. I don’t know if this is recommended — but it has worked for me so far. I pack the fur in plastic bag and put it in to freezer. Don’t pack it too tightly, pick a bag large enough. If you want to be dead sure keep it there for two weeks; some sources state that this is the time needed to kill possible fur beetle worms (funny though, I’ve never seen them in fur, but they are pretty common sight in old apartments, which I love — so I have seen quite few samples of larvae and even some adults of attagenus woodroffei and attagenus pellio…).

Removing  and washing the lining, removing odors
Most furs are constructed so that the lining can be easily removed. That means that there probably is a stripe of lining material that is sewn tightly around the edges of fur — and the actual lining is attached to this stripe, usually hand sewn with slipstitch — or even just basted on. Under the lining there might be another layer of fabric for support and extra insulation.

This stole is constructed exactly like that and I decided to remove the lining entirely for washing and proper conditioning of the leather. Under the lining there was a loose weave fabric or wadding, quite yellowed and in pretty bad shape. I decided to remove it altogether, it does not have any support function whatsoever. When removing the lining and wadding I noticed that the original lining has probably been replaced once — the upper part of the lining stripe is slightly different material. Actually the largest part of the lining is different material than the smaller part under the collar. At the same time the stole has probably been shortened a bit, the fabric is that new one in the bottom and and the stitching is slightly lighter.  This has probably not been done to adjust the size, I would rather guess that was shortened to repair some tears from the hem.

Another trick to remove odors from fur (and other garments) is to ground some coffee beans to the bottom of a plastic garment bag — and enclose the garment there for few days. When all extra material was removed from the stole I put it to plastic bag with some freshly ground quality espresso coffee (ha, that is not necessary, we just don’t have any other type — such a coffee snobs we are).

Hand wash the removed lining, the unfinished edges will fray on the washing machine. For the lining I made a bath from sap soap and warm water. From my experience sap soap is quite gentle for colors and vintage materials — but still relatively effective to stains and yellowing. Sap soap does not work instantly and I decided to leave the lining to the bath overnight. Soaking is overall better option for delicate vintage materials compared to all kind of scrubbing. In this case soaking did not remove all the stains and discoloration, but lightened them enough. Personally I prefer preserving the original materials as often as possible, although they might not be in a top shape anymore. The lining of the pale rabbit coat was such a mess that I just detached it and cut it open from the seams — and used it as a pattern for a new lining.

When I examined the fur stole further I noticed that there was one main reason for the hardening of some seams. On the construction or on some repair there was added some fusible fabric tape with adhesive to some of the seams. The glue was mostly disappeared and the tapes were on place just because of stitching but it was evident that all areas that were in contact with the adhesive had been dried out. So, don’t repair fur with glue.

Conditioning the leather
I don’t know if the furriers can condition the skin from the fur side of the coat, but with my hobbyist skills I have always done it from the wrong (leather) side.

The recipe for leather conditioner (you can use this same mixture to other leather garments as well, excluding mocha and split leather, maybe some heavily coated ones) is simple:

  1. Oil. This can be food quality flaxseed oil, olive oil, mink oil or neatsfoot oil.
  2. Mild acid. Use regular white vinegar or spirit vinegar (not the spiced variants, though :D)

Use a container with tight lid, pour there one part of vinegar and two parts of oil. Close the lid and shake vigorously. Use a small sponge or piece of cloth to dab the conditioner on the skin. Be careful on the edges, on the other hand you want to condition the skin edges carefully, but you don’t want to stain the lining edging or the hair. Pay attention to all dry and brittle areas and if the conditioner just sinks add some more. The areas in good condition don’t necessarily need much conditioner. It does not matter if the application is not 100% even, the conditioner will spread itself gradually to the skin, but be sure that there is conditioner everywhere and especially that the dried parts are well conditioned. Also pay attention to all areas that are under tension or friction (fitted body part, especially back and shoulder seams, waist, sleeve fitting, underarm, elbows, collar back and seat of the long fur, surroundings of buttons or hooks — and if you plan alterations condition the areas to be altered with extra care).

Now leave the for to the hangar for few days, inside out so the vinegar smell evaporates from the skin (it will, but it can take up to one week) and the conditioner sinks in the skin.

Repairing
Next step is to repair the fur. Usually repairing is easier by sewing by hand — but naturally large seams or alterations can be sewn with machine, too.

Simple tears with healthy leather around you can just sew together from the wrong side. Avoiding visible stitches is relatively easy with fur, you don’t have to be a seamstress master. If there is a torn area, like on the shoulder of this stole, it might be a good idea to sew just few supportive stitches to the torn area to keep the leather stripes on place and baste a piece of supportive fabric (thin woven cotton is great) to area to lighten the tension. Bad tears on main seams are the most difficult. You probably need to alter the construction less or more, usually at least take in the seam a bit — and cut the worn out parts first. I have to take in the collar seam of this stole. It will make the neck opening slightly larger, but I see no other way to go with this.

For sewing you need a special leather needle, they are available for handsewing and for sewing machines. It has slightly triangular profile and it makes a small incision to the leather rather than round hole. In hand sewing it is useful to use heavy thread, or regular sewing thread doubled. Never use polyester thread on skin, it is very hard and will eventually cut through the leather. Cotton and silk will both work. You can use all usual stitches for the leather, but usually simple oversewing stitch works fine for small tears. When sewing fur by hand be sure that you don’t squeeze bunches of hair on the right side. Work from wrong side, but observe the right side when you are working, your stitches should be perfectly disguised under the hair.

When sewing with machine use a teflon foot — or put a sheet of tissue paper between the leather and foot (just tear it away after seaming). The leather will not slide against the regular metal foot. Brush the hair inwards (meaning there are no hairs bursting through the skin edges) before sewing. Use small and dense zig-zag for the seams and sew from the very edge of the skin — the seam should “open” when gently pulled. If the hair has gotten into your seam use a sharp needle and pull them carefully out.

Cutting the fur
The fur is easiest to cut from the wrong (leather) side with a very sharp knife. I have used surgical knifes with great success but now my last one is worn and I don’t know from where to get new ones. Fabric cutter or very sharp carpet knife could work, too. Mind the hair when cutting.

If you have to use scissors be careful not to cut any extra hair. I would probably cut from the right side dividing the hairs from where I aim to cut so that I can see the skin.

Finishing
Iron the cleaned lining pieces, iron the allowances to the wrong side.

Pin the lining on place and sew it on using slipstitch. Note that the leather conditioner needs to be fully absorbed (at least couple of days, preferably a week) before you attach the lining — so you can’t do this all in haste.

Discussion

  1. May
    January 4th, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

    Wow, I really learned a lot about leather! Fur I don’t own although sheepskin has been on my mind for a long time. Now I feel bad for having thrown away an old leather jacket some time ago, probably it could have been restored with some of your tips.

  2. Kamicha
    January 4th, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    A nice extra tip for old leather items in bad shape: get a saddle soap from riding equipment store — it cleans and conditions leather at the same time. With leather items it is good to remember that conditioning makes the leather darker and the application should be more even than with fur.

  3. dust
    January 4th, 2010 @ 7:29 pm

    I get my knifes for leather at shoemaker, but I had to charm him firs.…

  4. dust
    January 4th, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    first…

  5. jenn
    January 5th, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    great guide — share your views re:fur, got a stunning real fur coat in a Paris vintage store in October; it’s the softest thing. A few rips and tears in the lining, but I got it for a great price for such a stunning and real fur (I didn’t realise it was real for agessss!)
    jenn.x

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    January 8th, 2010 @ 2:58 am

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  20. Rachel Phipps
    January 10th, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    Thank you so much! I don’t own a coat, but this has actually been really useful to find out about the care necessary for my artic fox fur Russian style hat LOVE YOU!

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  32. knitlit kate
    November 12th, 2010 @ 2:07 am

    great post. i just purchased a beautiful vintage mink jacket only to have one of the seams open up. your tips are inspiring me to consider a DIY repair. thanks!

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  34. Gina
    April 29th, 2012 @ 4:44 am

    hi

    i find your post very informative and encouraging.

    can you help me. I bought my first fox fur coat online. It is second hand vintage. For hygienic reasons, I washed the coat manually by hands by soaking it for a day in the bathtub with tap water and mild laundry soalp. I rinsed it, and with the help of my hubby wrung it to remove excess water and then hanged outside to dry.

    When it was dry and i tried to put it on, to my horror it has shrank. My arms could not anymore fit in the sleeves area.

    Csn you help me “unshrink” the fur perhaps with your wide experience. I am really near to tears with this catastrophe.

    thanks

  35. Kristina
    October 2nd, 2012 @ 5:27 pm

    I just wanted to commend you for putting your opinion on this out there. I know that it is a difficult subject to broach, and I think you put your thoughts forward in a very reasonable and concise manner. It is obvious that you respect your materials (animal or otherwise).

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  37. ms7482
    January 11th, 2013 @ 2:47 am

    Thank you very much, all of your information was helpful. I bought a vintage mink jacket that is very brittle, fragile to the touch. I knew it only needed to be condition by the feel of it. I will try oil and vinegar. I feel successful already. Will keep you informed. Thank again

  38. alpenghosh
    May 17th, 2013 @ 10:18 am

    I saw your post while searching for informative posts. It is really informative and quality of the content is extraordinary. Thanks indeed.

    Abbigliamento Donna

  39. Alyssa Rose
    September 6th, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

    This article is brilliant!! I found a couple of vintage fur coats one i think is lambskin coat and some kind of fur possibly beaver in a suitcase in my grannys attic!! There were my great granny’s so possibly 1930’s ish, they are in pretty good shape but a little smelly and one is slightly dry, I now know what to do! So excited to get started! thank you again for this post!

  40. Kate
    January 21st, 2014 @ 7:09 pm

    Brilliant blog.

    I have several, actually about 10, coats that I have purchased and collected from deceased family members and have been wondering what to do with them, some mink, some curly lamb and a beautiful ‘seal skin’ that was my mom’s in the 1930 – 1940 ear. At first, I thought about making a mink blanket and some pillows, but as the weather in Chicago gets very cold in January, as is evident in 2014 with –18 degrees a few weeks ago and –1 this morning, I have decided to alter them to make some very spectacular coats and jackets for myself and to sell. They are all vintage and repurposing them pays homage to both the creatures who gave up his/her hide, and to my mom, grandmom and other ladies who through the spirits and the ages have allowed me to gain custody of these hides in the first place.

    I have sewing skills, a little more than basic, and I have the patience to tackle this. I will more than likely be working on this project through the summer, but I plan on being able to wear them, or at least one of my remakes next winter, 2014 – 2015.

    Thanks so much for putting this out here in the blogosphere with your common sense and instructions needed to tackle a project like this. I feel more than capable of tackling this myself.

    Cheers.

  41. Sandra
    January 29th, 2014 @ 12:08 am

    This is great I bought a sealskin in Madrid and found the sleeve is perished. I will do as you said and reenergise it.. THank you so much.

  42. Kathy
    February 26th, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

    I purchased a Fin coat from an Ebay seller who assures me the coat is in great condition.…except for the fact everytime I wear it there’s another tear in it. After sending it back to him to repair at $80 in postage and $150 in cost to repair on two separate occassions, I opened up the seam last night and repaired the tear myself. In the process of opening up the linning I discovered the skins are dried and crumbling in some places, with small tears in others. I repaired what I could but didn’t know what to do about the rest. Your article is amazing. It’s good to know it’s not too late to start conditioning the coat, hopefully I will be able to save it for a little while.

  43. Rolley Chris
    March 25th, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

    I have just unpicked the lining on a fur stole and have it soaking in a bucket. The fur is very smelly. I read somewhere that bicarb soda was good for smells. I have just sprinkeled the fur of the stole with bicarb soda.
    Does anyone know what I do next? ?
    Thank you for considering my request.

What do you think?





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