Would you trap, kill, skin and sew your own fur? One girl"s extreme attempt to see if animal pelts can ever be ethical

Would you trap, kill, skin and sew your own fur One girl's extreme attempt to see if animal pelts can ever be ethical

Jenni Avins owns a red fox vest. It is simple, warm and, to many, hideously ugly for what it represents.

To Ms Avins, though, it is not only thing of beauty, but the hard-earned product of hours of her own labour and learning.

At Vice.com, she details her first, eye-opening experience of trapping and skinning foxes, the tanning process and finally the specialist seamstress work that is needed to make just one fur vest.

Blood sport: Jenni Avins trapped and skinned a fox then sewed her own fur vest

Blood sport: Jenni Avins trapped and skinned a fox then sewed her own fur vest

It is all part of her experiment to see 'just how difficult it would be to transform dead animal skin into haute couture.'

It was also a personal quest to unearth whether 'free range fur' is a possibility – could American wild fur have 'the potential be the fashion-industry equivalent of sustainable, free-range, farm-to-table meat'

'As it turns out, it’s a macabre but doable task, given some expert assistance,' she writes at the magazine site.

A trail of phone calls led the
tenacious Ms Alvis to a Pennsylvania forest. There, she was taught to
lay raccoon and fox traps. Marshmallows, a bacon-scented potion and a
grape jelly-like mixture was enough to entice raccoons, or coon, to the
vicious spring-mounted traps along muddy riverbanks.

Failing to trap her own animal
overnight, the one-time fashion insider, who had worked with a designer
who had a 'penchant for fur dyed in bold colours' instead headed to the
basement of a hunting business, where 'death was everywhere, and it was
crowded' and picked a frozen fox, killed earlier in the week.

Wild woods: The writer's journey began in a Pennsylvania wood, where she was taught to set fox and raccoon traps

Wild woods: The writer's journey began in a Pennsylvania wood, where she was taught to set fox and raccoon traps by a professional hunter and his business partner

Skinning her small beast was an
effort in strength – a strong gut, certainly, but also a strong arm, the
small fox not letting go easily of its protective hide.

The process is a gruesome one, not for the faint-hearted.

'I felt the hook push past the bones
and saw it come out on the other side. Eric slowly turned the fox, now
hanging by its hind legs, a blue plastic bucket on the floor beneath its
nose. A few drops of blood had already fallen in,' she writes.

'With the tip of the blade, I traced
up the backs of the fox’s shins and then around the bottoms of its
ankles. I worked my fingers into the seam of sliced flesh, pulling the
fur from shiny muscle until the swath was completely separated and
hanging just below its tail…

Not for the faint-hearted: Skinning the fox was an ordeal - bloody, tough and gruesome, the process took 40 minutes and required both mental and physical strength

Not for the faint-hearted: Skinning the fox was an ordeal – bloody, tough and gruesome, the process took 40 minutes and required both mental and physical strength

Not pretty: Ms Avins described skinning the creature as 'horrific' and found herself crying by the end of the process

Not pretty: Ms Avins described skinning the creature as 'horrific' and found herself crying by the end of the process, when she finally held the full pelt in her hands

'Without warning, my right hand flew
down the length of the tail as the fox swung away from me, and a long,
spindly bone sprang up in my face. It was absolutely horrific. “This is
the easy part,” Eric [her guide, a professional hunter] said. “Wait
until we get to the hard stuff.”'

The 'hard stuff' involved unwrapping
the fox of its entire coat, leaving a 'red and violet body', alien-like
in its strange, exposed appearance.

'I was holding the entire skin,
inside out, in my arms, completely bewildered,' Ms Avins writes. 'I
looked at the clock. The process had taken about 40 minutes.

'Something inside me wanted to clutch
it to my chest, like a teddy bear or a baby. I felt my chin crinkle up
and tried to steady myself, fearing [the hunters] might start to wonder
whether I was an undercover activist.

New York furrier: The one-time fashion insider used the expertise of a Manhattan furrier to sew her fresh pelts together

New York furrier: The one-time fashion insider used the expertise of a Manhattan furrier to sew her fresh pelts together. Sewing took four days

'To my horror, I was starting to cry.'

Four skins later, and Ms Avins had enough hide to make her vest.

The tanning stage was completed in New Jersey, by a man who had never skinned an animal himself. She described the relief of off-loading the reeking skins that she had kept in her bathroom, after they developed an 'odor somewhere between a butcher block, a leather shop, and a bowl of Cheetos'.

The writer describes the 'furs
frothing in tubs of soap, chemicals, and salt, preparing to be scraped
of excess flesh, moisturized, and then tumbled in towering wooden
barrels' – all part of the age-old process of turning skin into fur.

Steam blasting: Final touches included steaming the fur. It took just weeks to get to this stage, from the wood to a Manhattan workshop

Steam blasting: Final touches included steaming the fur. It took just weeks to get to this stage, from the wood to a Manhattan workshop

From a wintry wood in Pennsylvania to
Manhattan's fur district, the final stage of Ms Avins' fur journey was
an urban affair, conducted with the help of an expert furrier.

'We matched two of the
saltier-colored furs and laid them side by side,' she writes. 'With a gold-handled
blade, Dimitris sliced off their pale inner edges and sewed the skins
together, creating a mutant, two-headed fox pelt with a double-wide
back. “See” he said. “Like plastic surgery.” Then he unceremoniously
swiped across the tops of their necks. Like that, my foxes were fabric.'

Dimitris, explains Ms Avins, is one of just 40 furriers remaining in Manhattan. 27 years ago, there were over 500.

Lining and an embroidered monogram
later, and the vest was complete. The Manhattan-finished garment had
come a long way from its humble, wild and muddy beginnings.

Safe hands: Dimitris, one of just 400 furriers remaining in Manhattan of around 500 in the Eighties, guides Ms Avins in the cutting process

Safe hands: Dimitris, one of just 400 furriers remaining in Manhattan of around 500 in the Eighties, guides Ms Avins in the cutting process

An ethical project of sorts, while Ms
Avins was determined enough to go to the lengths of experiencing the
whole fur-making process, her experiment has still left some animal
rights commentators cold.

PETA's campaign director, Lindsay
Wright, was unequivocal: 'The fur trade is simply a violent, bloody
industry, any way you slice it.'

Finishing touch: While Ms Avins' dedication to her morals is impressive, PETA and animal rights academics were not convinced by the ethics of 'free range fur'

Finishing touch: While Ms Avins' dedication to her morals is impressive, PETA and animal rights academics were not convinced by the ethics of 'free range fur'

Even academics did not feel that Ms Avins' novel approach to a fox-skin vest altered the ethical certainty of fur.

She spoke to Steven Wise, author of An American Trilogy and a legal scholar specialising in animal rights. She wanted his opinion as to whether killing or processing one’s own garment influenced his belief that all fur should be illegal.

'No,' he told her. 'It just makes you wonder whether it’s insane.'