Piles of faux fur warm fashion-forward Mainers

Posted Oct. 14, 2011, at 12:36 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 14, 2011, at 7:39 p.m.
Jessica Kahl models a faux fur vest and leopard print top by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models a faux fur vest and leopard print top by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models a crochet-knit vest with faux fur trim by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models a crochet-knit vest with faux fur trim by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models a hat trimmed with faux fur by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models a hat trimmed with faux fur by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's while cuddling Bengal Bo.
Jessica Kahl models faux fur clothing by Kohl's while cuddling Bengal Bo.

Yeti is still hiding in the Himalayas, and the flying Purple People Eater hasn’t been seen since its glory days rocking 1950s pop charts. Nevertheless, their plush coats live on, inspiring the latest winter fashions. And though Maine is known for chasing the fashion bandwagon and sometimes missing it altogether, when it comes to outerwear trends, winterizing Mainers usually don’t miss a thing.

Resurrected from the 1970s, faux fur garments are even more elaborate, realistic and exotic than ever before thanks to technological advances in fabric manufacturing.

“I like that they are having fun with it and not trying to just copy nature. They’re going the next step,” said Jonathan Walford, curatorial director and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario, during a recent phone interview. “Some of the fur they’re making seems to be from fantasy animals.”

Today, the finest faux pelts are difficult to distinguish from the natural furs it imitates, save for the fact that much of it is dyed hot pink and electric blue.

Tree Heckler of Bangor, inventor of the Monster Bag, has been working with colorful fake fur since 1999, just in time to be the joyful witness to a surge in faux fur manufacturing spawned by “Monsters Inc.,” an animated children’s film released in 2001. To meet the demand for furry Halloween costumes, manufacturers developed neon-colored furs, some sporting big polka dots.

“These things aren’t the best for sewing machines,” said Heckler, digging through a bin overflowing with furry scraps at her Howling Threads Studio in downtown Bangor. “But you can look movie-star-like and you don’t have to kill anything. So why not?”

Children and teens who attend her after-school sewing program often choose scraps from her faux fur supply to embellish their clothing, along with sequins, lace and, on occasion, candy bar wrappers. And making a Monster Bag (complete with eyes, ears, nose and a mouth) is a rite of passage for the young students, and nothing works quite like fake fur to bring their totable creatures to life.

Early attempts at imitation fur were actually made with a natural material — alpaca hair. From a fashion standpoint, it didn’t look great. The colors were bland and the hair looked nothing like luxurious exotic pelts.

True fake fur was introduced soon after the invention of nylon in the 1930s and made its debut during World War II as trim on pilot jackets and cold-weather uniforms, said Walford, a fashion historian for almost 15 years.

After the war, the warm material became fashionable, especially in women’s coats. In the 1950s, faux fur’s peak of popularity, it usually was made to resemble the coats of short-haired animals such as ermine, fox and raccoon. The goal was to make garments luxurious at an affordable cost.

By the mid-1950s, fake furs were produced with acrylic polymers.

“There wasn’t this whole sort of anti-fur thing going on then. It was really about the expense,” said Walford. “But in the 1970s, there was a lot of interest in fake fur again, and that time, there was an anti-fur movement going on.”

Most recently, polymer producers found that acrylic polymers can be made even more furlike — and fire resistant — by mixing them with other polymers, creating new fabrics called modacrylics. Naturally occurring fabrics such as silk, wood and mohair are used to improve the look and feel of material, while silicone and resins are used to improve the material’s luster.

The anti-fur movement, driven in large part by the national activist organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is alive and well today. In fact, PETA lists companies that sell faux fur products on its online “Shopping Guide to Compassionate Clothing.”

Aside from the guilt-free nature of fake fur, there is a multitude of practical reasons some tailors prefer it to its natural counterpart. It’s more durable, lightweight and highly resistant to sunlight, heat, soot, smoke, mildew and insect attacks. Faux fur can be dyed almost any shade and comes in a variety of textures. It dries quickly. And it’s almost always less expensive than the real thing.

“The only thing about [faux] fur that is discouraging is that it is so hard to get the stuff — and in a cool pattern,” said Heckler.

When looking for quality Monster Bag material, Heckler has tried Walmart, Jo-Anne Fabric, A.C. Moore and Marden’s with limited success. It’s at New York City’s New York Elegant Fabrics that she finds the good stuff, including French faux fur that costs $200 a yard and is as soft as a rabbit pelt. But most important for Heckler, it comes in brilliant pink, green and purple.

“You really have to look on the Web for some really good faux fur,” said Ramona Baird, education director of the American Sewing Guild, who has been working with the material since 1980 to make jackets and teddy bears. “People who don’t know textiles very well can order samples.”

Baird suggests Vogue Fabrics at voguefabricsstore.com and Denver Fabrics at denverfabrics.com for quality material. She offers tips, such as cut only through the faux fur backing, use a long stitch, and pull the hair out of the stitching with something like a pencil to make the seam less noticeable. More sewing tips can be found on several blogs, such as burdastyle.com/blog/sewing-with-faux-fur.

While a variety of furry bolts might be tough to find at Maine stores, faux fur vests, coats, hats, boots, leg warmers and purses dominate clothing departments at stores such as Macy’s, T.J.Maxx and Kohl’s. L.L. Bean is offering the Baxter State Parka ($199) for both men and women with faux fur trimmed hood, a faux fur trimmed hoodie (on sale for $29.99) and a faux shearling toggle coat ($159), which the catalog touts as having “the luxurious softness of the real thing.”

“I think we all love our pets,” said Baird. “I have a cat and a dog. My husband and I have always had animals, and we love to sink your fingers into their fur. Faux fur is like that — cuddly and comforting.”

Tree Heckler’s after-school sewing program is for ages 4-13 on Monday and Tuesday and for teenagers on Friday at Howling Threads Studio in Room 305, 9 Central St. in Bangor. For information, call 974-8851. Monster Bags are available at Metropolitan Soul in Bangor.

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