Making the parka for my trip truly felt like an epic undertaking.
I decided early on to try and use UK skins as much as possible. The other participants mostly used Reindeer skins- in which case 2-4 skins would easily be enough. I decided to use foxes.
In the UK red foxes are largely considered a pest species. They have adapted extremely well to life alongside humans and often profit not only from intensive farming, but also human refuse. Control of foxes by shooting and trapping is an essential part of managing the countryside. Because foxes also prey on ground nesting birds, they can pose a threat to some at-risk species such as curlews, lapwings, English partridge and even some rare ground nesting birds of prey. Unfortunately fox numbers are also kept very high by the huge numbers of game birds released into the British countryside... but that's a whole 'nother conversation. There is a common misconception that fox hunting was banned a few years ago. Hunting with dogs ( the red coated, horse riding 'View halooooo' type of hunting) is illegal. Simply shooting and snaring is not, though I believe there are rules about types of ammunition required.
Thousands of foxes are shot every year, along with non native minks, grey squirrels and other pests. The meat and skins of a lot of these are most often left to rot, which seems a terrible shame. Over the winter of 2020 I got in contact with a local pest controller. He deals with foxes, and rabbits on several local farms, and kindly agreed to bring any victims of his rifle home from where I could pick them up. This let to some clandestine late night visits to his driveway with a black bag and many late night sessions at the workshop to skin and process the animals. A few also came from roadkill, including the unusually dark vixen who died on the main road through Colchester- she ended up being the front panel of the coat.
During the course of the winter, I collected around 40 foxes from him. Interestingly a vast majority were males, often younger males. This probably reflects the terratorial nature of these beautiful animals. The young males are nomadic, moving round the edge of established terratories , and as soon as one are is vacated ( I.e the resident dog fox is shot!) a new young male moves in. Of the 40 or so foxes, only about 5 were vixens, mostly later on in the season. This mirrors the methods of traditional trappers in North america- as soon as a Vixen is caught, the trapline is often abandoned for the season- this allows the trapper to manage the population without damaging overall numbers.
As a rule I 'case' skinned them- the only cut is up the back of the back legs, where the fur changes from orange/red to a paler colour. The skin ends up in a elongated cone or tube- open at the back end. The skins were then rinsed with cold water ( but only if they were particularly bloody) and the fur allowed to dry ( if blood is left in contact with the skin it begins to rot, and causes the epidermis to break down – this makes patches of fur fall out.
The skins were then be stretched over drying boards- scraps of plank or plywood cut into a shape reminiscent of a rifle cartridge silhouhette. The flesh side was then rubbed liberally with sawdust to deter flies and left to dry. I could have ( and did!) freeze a lot of skins, but eventually ran out of space. Drying them means they arent reliant on the freezer. However they can be prey to moths and mice- I lost several this way, which was very upsetting. I actually found 'dryscraping' them to be a really good technique. Generally I used a flint scraper, or sometimes my modern 'paint scraper'
Once I had several foxes scraped, I'd soak them in cool soapy water, both to help clean out the fur and remove some of the oily fat from the skin. Once they were rehydrated they were squeezed out, and left to drip dry. The aim here is to allow the skin side to dry enough that it is damp( water molecules in the skin will attract water in the tanning solution ensuring good penetration) but no so damp as to be saturated with water, meaning theres is no 'space' for the tanning solution.
There are several options for tanning solution-
chemical methods like chrome, nickel and alum, (not very good for use outdoors and the chemicals can wash out of the hides leaving them stiff, and salts used in the process can perpetually attract wetness from the air. Alum tanning ( tawing) has been used since at least the Vikings, the others are more modern, and environmentally damaging.
Bark tanning; I haven't used this method for furs yet, but have heard it is effective. Bark from alder, willow, horse and sweet chestnut, spruce, cherry, oak ( including the acorn cups and oak galls) and walnut can be boiled to extract tannin
( the bitter stuff in over brewed tea) In fact I have used copious quantities of cheap tea for this purpose! The skins are immersed in the tannins and the concentration slowly increased over a number of days. The skins are dressed with an oil solution and stretched to soften. Skins treated this way are strong and good at coping with damp. Fat tanning
This is probably the oldest method and traditionally uses the brain of the animal. Egg can be used, as can a solution of soap and oil. The method I chose is Lecithin, parlty becasue it seems fairly easy, and foolproof, especially for furs, and partly for the delicious irony of a vegan food additive being used to tan decidedly NON VEGAN leather.
is Lecithin is a modern take on brain- its a substance produced from sunflower oil and typical used in processed foods- including the artificial pap favoured by so many vegans. The best way to use this stuff is to get the granules- put them in a lidded jar with a little warm water and shake it regularly for an hour or so- it will eventally dissolve and start to look a bit like egg yolk.
This thick gloop is then dissolved in a larger volume of hot water ( 1l) , then diluted with cold water. I used about 1 dessert spoon of granules for 10l which was enough for bour 4-6 foxes, though not all at once!). I also added a tablespoon of vegetable oil, and a few drops of dish soap. The resulting liquid looks like dirty dishwater, and seems far too weak to achieve much, but it WILL work. The benefit is that you don't have to worry about it getting into the fur of the pelts- you can immerse them completely( unlike real brain and egg which usually has to be applied only to the flesh side othewise it makes the fur gunky. The skins are soaked in the solution for a couple of hours ( or overnight) then squeezed out, rolled in a towel and walked on and shaken vigorously. Here the important thing is to get the fur side dry as fast as possible so that the epidermis can't rot and release the fur. Its a bit of a race at this point! A breezy warm day helps at this point, but if you don't have that option, a fan, or hairdryer can help. Bear in mind that warmth also causes decay, so a coolish breeze is ideal.
This is the stage where any extra elbow grease really is worth it- the more you stretch and scrape the skin, the softer it will be. I favour a post, cable and flint scrapers. I found it very efficient to work on several skins simultaneously-favour which made for some long, and physically tiring days, but helped gain ground on the mountain of finished furs I needed for my outfit- Around 15! The final stage it to smoke the pelts to make the tanning process permanent.