Seal Fur Clothing: Nature’s Way to Stay Warm and Dry
Sealskin and fur products have always been popular in the frigid north, but now they’re also growing in popularity as fashion statements at lower latitudes. Informed consumers already know that skins and furs are environment-friendly; they come from sustainable harvests and biodegrade at the end of their lives. Now consumers are also learning of special qualities that make seal fur stand out from the crowd.
The one quality everyone expects from fur is warmth, and seal fur delivers. It’s not the absolute warmest; if ice-fishing at -40° is your thing, try caribou fur. But for slightly less extreme weather, seal fur is up to the task, whether you’re hiking in the woods or window shopping in the big city. Plus, seal fur is a lot less bulky than caribou and doesn’t shed like crazy!
Other qualities that put seal skin and fur ahead of most competitors are their durability and water resistance.
But before we look at these qualities, let’s talk about a special characteristic of seal fur that likely sets it apart from any other fur you’ll ever own.
Almost all seal fur products these days use species in the family Phocidae. Known as “true seals”, “earless seals” or “hair seals“, these include harp seals, which make up the bulk of the commercial hunt in Atlantic Canada, and ringed seals, which are important to Indigenous communities in the north.
True seals are covered entirely in longish, shiny guard hairs, which protect against bangs and knocks, wind, and water. Their main defense against the cold is a thick layer of blubber beneath the skin.
Then there are “fur seals“. These are from a different family altogether, Otariidae, and their fur is different too. Like true seals, they have a layer of guard hairs, but in common with most other furbearers, beneath the guard hairs is another layer of dense, short hairs known as underfur. This is what keeps most furbearers warm. Mink, fox, and all the other types of fur commonly used to make garments have both guard hairs and underfur.
So the lack of underfur, and how closely the guard hairs sit to the skin, is the main reason the fur of true seals is special. They’re not the only animals with “flat fur”, as it’s sometimes called; antelopes, deer, goats and calves all have flat fur. But none of these is as warm and durable as seal fur.
Now let’s look at some other ways seal fur stands out.
- Lightweight, flexible. Having no underfur, seal fur is lighter and more flexible than most other furs. This makes it ideal for use as an outer layer. As anyone who spends time in the snow knows, layering your clothing is crucial to staying warm. But multiple layers can be bulky and restrict your movement. Wearing seal fur as your top layer reduces this problem, and certainly when compared with really bulky furs like caribou or bear.
- Durability. Another great quality of seal fur is its durability, so expect your jacket to last for decades. One source from the early 20th century ranked the durability of furs used for garments at the time, awarding 100 points to the most durable of all, sea otter and otter. Beaver placed third with 90 points, followed by seal with 75. For comparison, two of the world’s most popular furs, mink, and fox, were ranked at 70 and 40 respectively.
- Water resistance. Seal fur has been called “nature’s raincoat”, and with good reason. Of course, no fur or skin is totally waterproof. That’s why we have oilskins, plastic capes, and rubber boots. But these materials breathe poorly if at all, so wearing them can be uncomfortable. You want to be warm, not drenched in sweat!
The most waterproof seal pelt is rawhide. This is naturally dried and softened, without the use of chemicals, and used to make traditional kayaks and tents. However, when pelts are to be used for garments, they are subjected to a process known as tanning to make the skin more resistant to decomposing. Tanning does reduce water resistance, but not by much, and the oil content of the fur is still extremely good at repelling rain.
Dressing for Protection
So with all these great attributes, it’s unsurprising that inhabitants of the High North have been using seal fur and skin for clothing and shelter for thousands of years. When the mercury plummets, there’s snow underfoot, and the wind is bracing, dressing in seal will keep you smiling. But you need to know how to dress.
- Torso. Smart layering here is a must. An effective arrangement might be a cotton T-shirt next to your skin, then a long-sleeved polo neck, then a woolen sweater, all topped off with a hip- or thigh-length seal fur coat.
- Legs. These are often overlooked in warmer climes, but that’s a mistake if you’re planning to spend hours in seriously cold weather. A pair of jeans may do at freezing point, but as the temperature drops further, layering becomes important here too. Cotton leggings under your regular pants work wonders, but if there’s a blizzard on the horizon, pull on some seal fur pants too!
- Extremities. Your extremities merit special attention because they can lose heat so fast. A seal fur hat and mittens are far more effective than the woolly variety, and for your feet, there’s nothing warmer than a pair of mukluks – traditional boots made of seal or caribou fur (though other materials are sometimes used these days). These are normally worn with a liner inside, and sometimes a protective overshoe to make them waterproof if walking in slush. Aside from keeping your feet toasty warm, mukluks breathe, which is vital in very cold weather because perspiration in your boots can cause frostbite.
Dressing for Style
Another great quality of seal skin and fur is the flexibility they afford designers, so you really don’t have to live in the Arctic to enjoy the benefits. Garments and accessories incorporating seal are a common sight on the streets of Canada’s major cities, and also at indoor gatherings when people want to look sharp or display their cultural heritage.
Increasingly though, designers are combining seal skin and fur with other materials, like cow leather, suede, cashmere, or other kinds of fur like coyote, fox, or rabbit. And sometimes they’ll just use seal fur as a highlight, which makes it pop even more. On colder days, you can be warm and stylish in a coat of cashmere and seal fur paired with knee-length seal fur boots with wool lining. Or maybe opt for some rugged leather boots with seal fur trim and sheepskin lining.
Last but not least, seal fur has one more advantage over some other furs: it’s very good at holding dye. Most people love the natural colors of furs, but if your outfit demands something blue or pink, or an ornate design, seal may be the answer. You don’t even need snow as your backdrop in a pair of suede and red seal fur running shoes!