Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What the heck is a polecat?

Portrait of a Lady Image via Wikipedia
I'm scrambling to finish a gonfalon/banner for my local group to have at Coronation this weekend and working on my daughter's birthday gifts, so the dress is still not completely refitted.  So, you get some ramblings of things that struck my fancy. 

This lovely portrait by an unknown Milanese artist resides in the Rijks Museum. It got posted to the Realm of Venus Facebook page by Carol Marie Meyer.  I hadn't seen it previously.  Since I just picked up the fabric for a veste, it is getting dropped into my inspirations folder.  The really interesting part is obviously the lining.  If you haven't ever gone looking at the Rijks Museum, they have an amazing zoom, so you can get up close.  I spent quite a bit of time staring at the lining. I will totally admit to having recently drooled over both lynx and bobcat furs for use as a zibellino.  Not in my budget right now (since I keep buying fabric and lace) but I really, really want a lynx zibellino.  They were very fashionable for older ladies.  I rather fall into that category. A lynx lining on a veste is such a dreamy concept. Obviously, there's no way that is going to be in my budget however.  Not even if it was faux.

The discussion on this veste got me digging into some research on fur use.  That was one of my big interests with the Russian persona.  Russians had an extended period within the SCA timeline where they used furs as currency.  They didn't use them as barter as you would expect, but actually stamped them with values and handed them around as coins. The symbolic and actual use of fur is a subject I find really intriguing.  I have not really investigated it, other than by making some zibellini, with the Italians.

I started with Carole Frick's Dressing Renaissance Florence, as it was on the shelf 5 feet from me. She has a section on the furrier's guild in Florence, the Arte dei vaiai e pellicciai.  Florence is importing at least a million furs a year, and the furriers are one of the oldest guilds as well as being one of the top seven in power. They are using at least 20 different furs, and many of the furs are subdivided into named sections based on both part of the animal and color of the fur.  White is always the most prized.  As an example of the division of parts; squirrel furs (the look that heraldic vair is derived from) are seperated into back, underbelly, and rump.  That is not a large fur in the first place.  Speaking of small furs, dormice are a popular fur.  They're tiny.  The guild itself is divided into the vaia, who deal with the squirrel (vair,) the lynx, sable, and other more expensive fur while the pelliccia work with the less expensive furs.  As far as the fur they are dealing with, locally there are fox, marten, European polecat, rabbit, 4 species of wolf, dormouse, 3 species of hare, and grey and red squirrel. They're importing wildcats from Spain and ermine, lynx, and sable from Russia and Poland. Lots of options for getting just the right look at the right price point for their customers.

I had at least a general idea of what most of the furs look like (if a bit incredulous that they're piecing together tiny dormice) except for the European polecat. I sort of thought it might look skunk-like due to Beverly Hillbillies reruns where Grannie called people lowdown skunks and polecats. (Yeah, well, everyone's mind makes weird associations.) They are not, in fact, even remotely like skunks.  Polecats are the lone ancestor of ferrets.  They're a mustalid like the marten and sable. They can mate and produce offspring with minks and ferrets. We still use their furs in modern coats and stoles, but it is referred to as "fitch."  They have a yellowish back and darker extremities. Pretty stuff, a bit different than mink.


  1. Interesting... I wonder how the name got shifted to skunks in the US?

    1. I was wondering the same thing, so I looked. I think it has to do with the striped polecat/zorilla. It is an African relative of the European polecat/puzzole, our Italian fur source. The zorilla defends itself with a stinky secretion from anal glands. It also has stripes. Add up those two factors and a skunk seems a great deal like it, even if they are in no way related.