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Furthering her skills

Clam Gulch entrepreneur makes business from warm, fuzzy feelings

Posted: Friday, February 20, 2004

There's no denying it, Alaska winters can be harsh. As such, clothing worn by people who are frequently outdoors must protect against severe cold, high winds and moisture.

Many materials can be worn to keep warm, but for some people there's just no substitute for the real thing fur.

"Synthetic is nice, but fur is more traditional. It's very Alaskan and you don't realize how warm fur really is until you've worn it," said Sue Shanks, owner of Howling Wolf Furs in Clam Gulch.

Unlike many furriers, Shanks doesn't sell pelts, but rather manufactures garments from pelts customers bring in.

 

Mukluks are one of Sue Shanks favorite items to make, despite the fact that they are also one of the most challenging and time consuming.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"A lot of my business is custom," Shanks said. "People bring in a pelt and tell me what they want and I'll make it for them. I don't like to mass produce stuff. Fur loses it's flavor when you do that."

This ethic has set Shanks apart from many others in her trade.

"Not everyone will work with other peoples' furs. Instead they'll just purchase their own pelts for resale," she said.

Shanks learned her trade by apprenticing for several years under Lee Martin of Northland Furs in Soldotna. She continues to work with her mentor but there's no denying Shanks' own skills. She transforms fur from just an animal hide into a work of art.

 

Shanks is surrounded by several ongoing and completed projects in her shop in Clam Gulch.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

"I'll start out doing any repair work a fur needs, like fixing holes, slip spots or rubs. Then I'll stretch it, lay a pattern, cut and sew it," she said, making the entire process sound much easier than it really is.

Her craft doesn't happen overnight take all the work that goes into a pair of mukluks, for example.

"Mukluks are a work of art. They take a lot of time to make generally six weeks but they're my favorite to make. Every pair is different even if you try to make them the same."

Shanks is just coming off of her busiest time of year. "The colder the winter the better the business, but from October to December I'm generally really busy. This year I was booked by Nov. 10 with Christmas orders," she said.

 

Shanks lays out the pattern on a beaver pelt, in preparation for her next project.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Tourists bring Shanks a fair amount of business in June and July, with requests for slippers, baby booties and hats. However, most of her winter business is local clientele looking for what Shanks describes as "practical" fur beaver, wolf, wolverine or the highly durable land otter.

"I have a lot of mushers that come in to get mittens, hats and ruffs," said Shanks.

Shanks said the ruffs, when worn down, keep the shoulders and neck warm, and when pulled up, block snow, wind and can keep frost off the face important features to have when standing on the back of a moving sled in below freezing temperatures.

Shanks has made ruffs for some big-name mushers like Martin Buser, Paul Gebhardt and Tim Osmar, but also tries to help out local mushers that are still up and coming.

"I sponsor a musher every year," she said. "I want them to be warm, no frostbitten fingers or anything like that."

This year Shanks sponsored Junior Iditarod contender Nicole Osmar by providing her with a pair of fur mittens after Shanks heard that the teen had gotten cold hands during a few training runs.

Shanks also was one of the business sponsors for the Clam Gulch Classic sled dog race held in December.

Not all of her business is mushers, though. She has a few clients who require out-of-state orders. She does rugging adding the felt border and backing to a mount for a few local taxidermists. She also enjoys teaching skin sewing classes from time to time.

"There's a lot of knowledge involved in skin sewing, but a lot of that knowledge isn't being passed down, which is a shame because skin sewing can be a real art form," Shanks said.

She said there's always people interested in learning her craft. "I haven't met a trapper yet that doesn't want his wife or girlfriend to sew something for him."

Some of Shanks' work has even graced the silver screen. She and Martin worked together to create a wardrobe specifically Native village outfits for the Steven Seagal movie "On Deadly Ground."

"The movie sucked, but the outfits turned out nice," said Shanks, adding that the whole experience was unusual.

"I was used to making beautiful furs, but Hollywood didn't want beautiful. They wanted a scruffy, worn-in look. So they had a wardrobe guy that would rub dirt on them, burn them, and distress them in other ways," Shanks said.

Shanks admitted that Hollywood types aren't the only ones with strange requests. Even locally, she said, she will periodically get a request to make a fur bikini, lingerie or other items that are outside the ordinary.

However, Shanks takes every request seriously whether it be making fur for function, fashion or fun.

"I like variety," said Shanks. "I don't do this to get rich, I do it because I like it. It's fun and challenging and I like being my own boss."



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