This year we have a Heritage Craft area, highlighting Makers of a different kind: People with traditional skills and expertise in fields that at one time were the cutting edge of technology, expanding trade and exploration, and improving life in myriad ways. One of these Heritage Crafters is Ellie Willingham unusual both for her skills, and for her gender in her field, which has traditionally been male dominated. Ms. Willingham’s exhibit was among our most popular last year, and this year she’s expanded her booth to offer a broader educational experience at Gulf Coast Maker Con 2014.
We asked her to tell more about what she does and why she does it. We hope you enjoy her insights as much as we did!
GCMC: What do you do?
FF: I am a furrier – I make all kinds of things out of fur! Everything from hats and other winter accessories, to costuming and re-enactment attire. I trap and process many of the furs myself, and others I obtain by trading with other trappers or fur crafters. I sell my furs at many local events and also online. Clients will also send me their own pelts to have made into a customized product of choice.
GCMC: How long have you been doing it?
FF: I skinned my first animal – a road killed squirrel – in my early teens and decided then I wanted to become a professional taxidermist. I did taxidermy for years until it later proved too costly to continue. So I switched to fur crafting and have enjoyed it ever since!
GCMC: What do you like about your work?
FF: I love fur crafting for countless reasons. There are so many beautiful and practical items that can be made from fur and leather, the possibilities are endless. I’m a very outdoorsy person, and during the winter I enjoy spending almost every morning out on my trapline (an area of woods set with a number of traps for furbearing species) I have a deep respect for these animals and all they provide. I use their fur, eat their meat, and take to heart everything I can learn from tracking and observing them in their habitats. For me, it is a very natural way of being.
GCMC: Why do you think what you do is important?
FF: Much of what I do tends to get a bad rap from the media and the animal rights communities, mainly because people simply don’t understand it or have no real experience with it. And people often fear or dislike what they don’t understand. So by openly sharing my craft and teaching others about what I do, it will help the general public gain a better knowledge of this trade and to understand that it’s not all about “killing”. More so, it’s about responsibly utilizing and managing our natural resources, and preserving a traditional way of life.
Natural fur is a very renewable resource. Animals reproduce constantly, and they produce an excess in order to keep their populations stable. However if the excess is not kept in check, either through natural depredation or human harvests, many species will begin to overpopulate, which inevitably leads to spread of disease or inbreeding. In some areas where there are little or no natural predators, hunting and trapping is the most effective means of managing prolific species such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes, beavers, opossums and others.
Also, real fur is a completely natural and biodegradable product, even when processed and tanned. If discarded in a landfill, a piece of real fur or leather will eventually break down and disintegrate from the weather. Faux fur on the other hand, as well as synthetic leathers, are comprised of man-made materials, typically containing petroleum and plastics, which will never decompose in our lifetimes.
GCMC: The “Maker”community is often equated with high tech topics, but we believe the makers of heritage traditions are equally important. Why do you think what you do and make has value to the DIY community?
FF: In this high-tech world, I think it’s very important for people to see the simpler side of things, to know that many traditional methods and crafts still exist and are still being used today because of their timeless reliability. The only way we can pass on these heritage traditions, and to keep them going, is to expose and teach them to our future generations.
GCMC: What kind of demonstrations will you be doing at GCMC?
I will be demonstrating how to process fur from start to finish, and will also give a few tips on how to properly prepare wild game meat. Using a freshly harvested raccoon and opossum, I will show how to skin these animals and dress the meat, then get the pelts prepared for tanning. You will also get to try a taste of my special raccoon jerky!
GCMC: Will you have any interactive components?
I will have a “touch table” with all kinds of fur pelts and examples of products that I’ve made out of fur, along with the above-mentioned samples of raccoon jerky for anyone to try. It’s surprisingly tasty!