by Nevena Rousseva
Sustainable fur? Sounds dubious, but after talking to the unconventional designer Peter Williams, you like me, may think it is possible. I’m not talking about mink, sable, or chinchilla, but seal and sea otter fur. It’s not the type of fur that usually comes to mind, and this new designer doesn’t procure it by going to a wholesale furrier and buying the hides. His way is a little more old fashioned.
Peter Williams is half Yup’ik Eskimo and half European blend from Alaska who hunts seals and sea otters. He hunts the animals for food and uses the hives to make vests and other products under his company Ata. For him hunting is not a sport, it’s a way to connect spiritually to his Alaskan roots and ancestors.
Alaskan natives have had a relationship with the marine animals for over 7,000 years. Many of the natives would put the hides back in the ocean after hunting because of the cost to ship and tan them. Peter however saw the potential of the hides. Creating clothing with the hides is a way for him to share his culture and craft with the outside world and support his community.
Normally sea otters and seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However Alaska natives are exempt because they have a spiritual relationship with the marine animals, which play an important part in the preservation of their native culture. For this reason only the natives can hunt seals and sea otters and work with the fur. Peter sees the animals he hunts as an extension of himself in the form of food, clothing, religion, art and culture. He doesn’t take advantage of the animals by hunting more than he needs. After each hunt he performs the ritual of giving the animal its last drink of water and thanking it for its life. This creates a bond between him and the natural world.
Sea otters are not endangered. Their population is healthy and growing. The sea otter fur is very dense, up to a million hairs per square inch. It is also one of the most luxurious furs in the world. The vest below is a combination of seal and sea otter. The top and bottom white fur is seal and the dark fur in the middle is sea otter. The back of the vest is wool. The reason for using wool is to make more vest with less marine animals and to keep the price lower. It takes approximately one sea otter or seal to make the front of one vest. Peter uses only the hides he has hunted. For this reason quantities are low.
For Peter hunting is a metaphor for life in that it’s unexpected and unpredictable. Interacting with the animal, working with it and eating it gives him a sense of identity. The whole process from hunting to a finished product takes a few months.
Ata products and Peter’s process are an example of sustainable fur because the animals are respected and only hunted when necessary, so there is no over hunting. This is vastly different from the horror stories about the killing of other animals for their fur.
If you want to know what it’s like to go hunting then watch this short movie of Peter hunting for seals. Just a warning there are some graphic parts.
For more on Peter Williams and the Ata products click here.