Fur Brushes & BowsYou may have heard about fur coats but have you heard of fur brushes? Artists and beauticians use fur brushes in the fine arts and cosmetics industries. The fur in brushes is the forgotten fur, that most people do not even think exists. Yet the fur in brushes is as real as the fur in fur coats. A parallel situation also exists in the music-making world (Musical Bows, below).
The Forgotten FurThe animal that artists prize most for making the best - and most expensive - paint brush is the Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica).
Don't forget the Forgotten Fur of brushes and bows.The weasel lives in Siberia, China and other parts of Asia. The fur trade commonly calls the Siberian weasel a kolinsky. A kolinsky fur brush has unequalled springiness, responsiveness and long life. It is the pre-eminent art brush, allowing an artist extremely fine application control.
Siberian weasels wear russet coloured fur, live throughout the taiga's forested river valleys and swim in its lakes. They are about as long as two A4 pages are wide (40 cm or 16 ins) - plus a long bushy tail. They eat rabbits, rodents, insects and fruit and can live up to six years, but do not usually survive more than two years in the wild. They are cousins of the wolverine, badger, mink, sable and stoat (also taken for their fur).
TrappingTrappers have caught Siberian weasels for the fur garment industry since the 16th century and the animals are much sort after by the trade. The weasels must live in the freezing Siberian climate for their fur to grow to the right length and thickness required by the fur trade; fur from farmed animals in warmer climates make inferior fur garments. Trappers lay out lines of leghold traps (see Fur Trapping) or snares and by morning many weasels have frozen solid.
PreparationFur brushes are largely hand made. A fur dealer receives the pelts and tails of animals, cleans, cuts and grads the fur and sends it in bundles to the brush manufacturer. The brushmaker carefully sorts the hairs, picks out and discards poor individual hairs, and packs the right quantity into a ferrule, the small metal cylinder of a brush, ready for the stick to be added. A big manufacturer of fine art material can produce 30,000 brushes a week.
Other Brush AnimalsFur brushes do not tell you much just by looking at them. Art brushes sometimes have useful information painted on their handles, but cosmetics brushes almost never do. Things are not always what they may seem, even when there is information on the brush. In the arts world not all brushes labelled kolinsky, or a variation of the name, are necessarily Siberian weasel. Instead, a brush may hold fur from related animals, for instance sable, marten or mink, and may or may not have some kolinsky fur mixed in.
Another animal-in-a-brush is sable. Sable is the next best fur to kolinsky and sometimes confused with that animal. However, brushes labelled as sable may come from a sable or from a related animal, like marten or mink. These animals are trapped in the wild, like the Siberian weasel, or come from fur farms.
Other animals turned into brushes are as diverse as mongoose, hog and goat. Brushes with the name sabeline are nothing to do with sables but come from cattle hair. So-called camel brushes do not come from camel but from ox, pony, squirrel, sheep or some other creature.
Synthetic BrushesBushes made from synthetic fibres, such as nylon or polyester, form a large and growing market and are less expensive than fur brushes. Nevertheless, some synthetic fur brushes may be a mixture of synthetic fibre and animal hair. To confuse matters, some synthetic brushes have labels with animal or animal-like names, for instance White Sable, Golden Sable and Erminette.
Musical BowsAnother forgotten fur is the horse hair on violin bows and bows of other musical instruments. (Bow hair is course but otherwise exactly the same as fur.) The naive assume that bow dealers acquire hair by gently plucking happy horses' tails. But the horse hair industry needs big quantities to satisfy the music industry and because horse hair is used for more than making bows. Most bow hair comes from the tails of horses slaughtered in Mongolia, China and Canada. Hair dealers will not talk about it and are not open concerning the trade – and any dark secrets it may hide.
Final QuestionsDo artists, beauticians and musicians need to use the trade in animal parts to apply their work? Good artists can paint with just about anything. Beauty should be cruelty-free. Unfortunately, the suffering of horses may underlay a large part of Western music.
SourcesA source of information about fur brushes is the catalogues of dealers in shops selling art stuff.