BY: Alan Herscovici, Senior Researcher, Truth About Fur

FurCanada workshops teach European fur-working skills to Canadian students. Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

Calvin Kania and Panos Panagiotidis are on a mission to share their passion for making beautiful fur apparel and accessories, one student at a time! Their secret weapon: “Seal/Fur Workshops” at FurCanada’s headquarters on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and in First Nations and other communities across Canada.

“We realized that many designers and crafters would love to use fur in their collections, but don’t have the knowledge or fur-working skills,” says Calvin, founder and CEO of FurCanada.

Though raised on a trapline in the rugged BC interior, Calvin wasn’t a trained furrier either, so he teamed up with someone who was.

Enter Panos, who learned the furrier’s art from his father in Kastoria, the legendary fur manufacturing village hidden away in the mountains of northern Greece. After earning his degree at Kastoria’s fur school, Panos gained invaluable practical experience working with a master furrier in Germany for eight years, before returning to teach in Kastoria in 2005.

From 2015 to 2018, Panos assisted Vasillis Kardasis, a distinguished professor at the Royal College of Art in London, England, to launch the Fur Summer School in Kastoria. With support from the International Fur Federation, international auction houses, and the Hellenic Fur Association, the Summer School provided an introduction to the full fur-production process for designers, journalists and others from around the world.

Not Only Designers Are Interested

Panos shows Tania Larsson (L) how to make patterns while expert seamstress Despoina Karageorgiadou listens in .Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

At Calvin’s invitation, Panos arrived in Canada in 2019, and in March 2020 they hosted their first Seal/Fur Workshop.

“Covid made things difficult at the start,” recalls Calvin, “but we are now doing a one-week workshop every month at our atelier, with students coming from across Canada, the US, and as far away as Peru and Australia.

“Many of our students are designers, but many trappers are now also interested. Instead of selling their pelts to a fur buyer or through the auction, they have their pelts dressed by small local tanneries and are making their own fur vests, mitts, hats, and other accessories and home décor items.

“And we are taking our workshops on the road; Panos did a workshop in the Inuit community of Inuvik, NWT, last year, and he just did another in Yellowknife.”

And then it’s time for Ruth Modeste to try it for herself. Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

“It was quite a shock stepping out of the airplane in Yellowknife in February,” recalls Panos. “it was minus 32 Celsius!

“Cold weather but warm people! There were 16 Indigenous craftspeople in our workshop, and they were wonderful.”

“They Questioned Everything!”

Karen Wright-Fraser (L) and Camellia Gray model two projects finished at the workshop: a beaver with lynx vest and a sealskin vest. Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

The latest six-day workshop was organized by NWT Arts, a program of the Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Tourism and Industry, with students flying in from surrounding communities.

“Over the six-day workshop they completed three fully-finished projects: a fur pillow, a sealskin vest, and a beaver with lynx vest,” says Panos.

“It was a pleasure working with them because they were so interested in the furrier’s techniques I showed them. And because they were already experienced sewers, they questioned everything!”

After all parts of a garment have been connected, there may be slight deformation in the lines. Panos shows Alissa Landry how to correct this with a steam iron. Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

So what sort of things did they question?

“One of the first steps in working fur is to wet the pelt, stretch it out, and tack it on a board to dry,” explains Panos. “This is called ‘blocking’ the pelt, and one student wanted to know why she should do that. She often made beaver mitts and had never done this.

“So, I asked, ‘How much fur do you use to make a pair of mitts?’ Two beaver pelts, she said. I laid her pattern out on the board to show that when the beaver was stretched and blocked, she would only need one pelt to make the same pair of mitts. When she saw how much fur and time she would save, she was convinced!

A fur-sewing machine produces regular stitches and is much faster than sewing by hand..Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

“Another student asked why she should learn to use a fur-sewing machine when she had been sewing fur by hand all her life. I told her, ‘OK, you sew a pair of mitts by hand and I will sew a pair on this machine.’ My pair was done in about 10 minutes and she worked on hers for the rest of the day. When she had finished, I said: ‘Now, look at the two pairs, what do you think?’ ‘Yours is much better, the stitches are more regular,’ she said with amazement.

“It was wonderful working with people who were so engaged and interested. They were challenging me all the time, and they really appreciated what we were bringing them: how we measure the fur we’ll need, how we cut pelts to the pattern with a furrier’s knife – all the European fur-working skills that they could marry with the traditional designs and sewing techniques they had inherited,” says Panos.

Now We Must Teach Teachers

FurCanada workshops are so successful that more communities want to participate..Back row, L to R: Johanna Tiemessen, Ruth Modeste, Bambi Amos, Kathy Paul-Drover, Eleanor Elias, Annie Felix, Brian Rogers, Billie Lennie, Gerri Sharpe, Alissa Landry, Lucy Simon, Panos. Front row, L to R: Camellia Gray, Andrea Fowler, Tania Larsson, Karen Wright-Fraser, Hovak Johnston, Debbie, Kayla Cooper. Photo: Jamie Stevenson.

“The workshops have been such a success that now more communities want to participate, more than Panos can do himself,” says Calvin. “We will have to teach teachers who can bring this knowledge to more communities.”

Meanwhile, Panos is hitting the road again with a workshop scheduled in Sudbury, Ontario, later in April, and another with the Mi’kmaq First Nation, in Nova Scotia, in June.

“Lots of creative young people are interested,” says Calvin. “We give them a taste of how they can work with fur, and they go home and practice and perfect their skills, and then they bring exciting new fur products to a new generation of consumers. It’s a whole new future for fur that’s opening up, and we are so happy to be helping it along!”

Yassine Touati attended our March 2022 workshop and expressed his appreciation for the knowledge we were able to provide him in the pursuit of fur excellence. This is his story:

Fur Canada,

My interest in fur grew exponentially since my arrival to Canada about 18 months ago. I learned about the FurCanada workshop on the website “The Truth About Fur” at the occasion of my participation at the Canadian Fur Council Design Competition for which I was a finalist (I was lately able to attend their amazing Fur workshop which was delayed because of Covid). I was very eager to learn more about fur and working with it as soon as possible. Consequently, I reached out and I got to communicate directly with Calvin who was approachable and welcoming. I kept following the updates and as soon as I got the chance to come to Nanaimo for the workshop, I rushed to book my trip from Montréal to the Canada’s West Coast to attend two Fur design workshop sessions after saving for several months to be able to afford it. Following the footsteps of Canadian Explorers, in pursuit of furs, I embarked on this exciting journey to discover a new territory/part of Canada, the stunning nature and the rich cultural heritage. After a long Montreal winter, I was striving to learn new skills and fuel my inspiration and creativity.

At FurCanada, the charismatic Panos supervised and directed the workshop. He is a very knowledgeable teacher/instructor who I had the pleasure to get to know and connect with him partially due to Mediterranean shared culture and around the passion for fur. Every morning, Panos gathered the participants to discuss our questions and warm up the session. On the other side, Calvin played the role of maestro coordinating all aspects of the workshop. Even though, he was in the background, I got the chance to discuss with him and listen to his stories, his entrepreneurial vision, and his experience in the realm of Taxidermy and fur trapping which goes along with his passion to preserve traditions and trades fundamental to Canadian identity and embedded in its history as a nation. The workshop was an amazing experience where Panos brought his expertise from Kastoria, the Greek fur Capital, from the Old World to the New World all the way to the Pacific coast of Canada. Panos introduced his approach and demonstrated the fundamentals of that every furrier must master. He taught us how to examine the anatomy of skins/pelts while considering the individuality of each animal. We learned how to recognize and determine the features as well as any visible defects, scars… This observational step is crucial to making the necessary corrections using well defined classical techniques. We spent a considerable amount of time blocking several skins of different sizes such as Canadian sable, Fox, and Canadian beaver. I realized the importance of blocking and shaping the skin to define the dimensions required to fit our patterns/designs. As a leather designer working with leather, these techniques were a revelation and new knowledge. A pelt is more shapable and allows the furrier and fur designer more flexibility than leather. On the other hand, the animal skin in its natural format and color must be considered as an individual and therefore assembling skins from the same animal specie should involve another set of skills and the expertise related to colour grading (another technique Panos was eager for us to practice extensively).

During the workshop, I was able to meet and interact with other students each from a different walk of life. We all shared our knowledge and a common passion for fur. The classroom environment encouraged interactions, open discussions, and lot of questions, all in a general atmosphere of hospitality and generosity. Panos was generous with all the information he shared and motivating us to ask the most questions. I personally enjoyed learning the techniques of blocking and stretching the skins which involved dexterity and manual skills. Working with my hands and touching the materials was a great source of satisfaction.

I am very happy that I was able to meet and learn from both Calvin and Panos. It is a pleasure for me to be part of this community and to do my best as a designer to promote fur designs and contribute to it through my personal vision. My dream is to see the Canadian fur industry once again thriving and celebrating tradition, innovation, technology, and excellence as a gratitude for the wealth of natural resources and a connecting point with the cultural heritage of Canada’s first nations.

What happens when you put a Greek Master Furrier in a room full of Northern Indigenous Women? There’s going to be learning, laughter, a little bit of teasing and an even deeper appreciation for fur.

In February 2022, NWT Arts sponsored a 6-day intensive fur seminar in Inuvik, Northwest Territories for Indigenous Artists, Designers and Seamstresses who work primarily with fur, via Industry Tourism and Investment, a department of the Government of the Northwest Territories.  I was fortunate to get a spot in this course which was right in line with my work as a modern Inuvialuk Artist and Fashion Designer.  Many of us were from outlying communities who travelled to Inuvik to attend the program, and others had to take time from work and family to attend, such is our dedication to excellence, willingness to learn from a master furrier and improve our traditional and contemporary fur skills.

The master furrier I speak about is none other than Pangiotis Pangiotidis.  He is a Greek who spent his life since a young age working in the European fur business, learning from master furriers and becoming a master at his craft.   He told us that Canada has never produced a female furrier, nor do we have any professional full time furrier training programs, which is surprising considering that modern day Canada as many know it was built on the fur trade and our furs are the best quality in the world.  Panos had his own successful fur business in Greece but decided to move to Canada to pursue teaching opportunities with Fur Canada based in Nanaimo, BC.  Here he teaches intensive seminars in fur construction.

Among the attendees, there were Inuvialuit (Inuit), Gwich’in (Dene) and Metis, all Indigenous to the Northwest Territories, Canada’s Western Arctic. For those of us fortunate to attend, many have day jobs and create traditional clothing, garments and fur accessories in their spare time, selling within our communities and online. Some of us own our own Art & Design businesses. We all appreciate the value of fur, hides, pelts, leather and how important and necessary it is in a cultural context to create and do what we do.  Some of us are re-learning what our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew having been taught by their mothers and grandmothers until the Canadian Government’s Residential School system imposed by Catholic and Anglican Missionaries disrupted our way of life causing irreversible damage to our people, culture, knowledge transfer systems, community and family structures.  All of which we are still working to heal to this day.  Part of that healing is reclaiming our traditional sewing skills, arts and crafts, using what we retained of our traditional knowledge and incorporating contemporary practices and techniques.

The value of fur and its practical uses are so very important for many reasons.  The main one being for survival in harsh Arctic conditions – which Indigenous People knew that in order to survive it was absolutely necessary to use what was available in our natural environment to create functional, warm, sustainable, biodegradable clothing.  Fashion was never the priority; however, looking back on some of the first photos of Inuvialuit and Gwich’in, I see the skill and pride in their work, creating functional garments that were also incredibly beautiful, told a story of belonging, showed the skill and love of the seamstress, ability and wealth of the hunter to provide beautiful furs.  Our dramatic amaruq sunburst fur ruffs made of Arctic wolf and wolverine have been scientifically proven to be the best design to divert cold arctic air and keep your face warm in extreme cold conditions, far superior to any man-made faux furs. Wolverine is valued for its characteristic fur trait in that condensed ice buildup from your breath can simply be brushed off without compromising the fur’s ability to insulate. And far from the mislabelled ‘clubbing cute baby seals’ identity promoted by animal rights activists, we do not actually club baby seals to death.  While there is no way around killing an animal, a good hunter ensures it’s done efficiently and quickly so the animal will not suffer unnecessarily. We understand, appreciate and humbly respect that an animal gives it life so we may live. We use most if not all parts of the animal, and anything not used is put back into the land and water to decompose putting nutrients back into the nature.  We do  not to take more than we need, only what’s necessary for survival and subsistence hunting, thus creating a sustainable cycle, not an exploitative, finite one.

My great naanak Taalrumiq (English name Mary Gruben) was one of the first Inuvialuit to marry a European Fur Trader, a Swiss-German Hudson’s Bay employee named John Gruben.  She and the Inuvialuit Arnait (Women) of her generation went from creating full fur and skin garments in the traditional ways of our ancestors using caribou sinew and bone needles to adapting to using materials available with the advance of the fur trade like cotton, polyester and wool fabrics, nylon thread and metal needles.  They incorporated techniques and more modest styles introduced by the nuns, thus creating a new tradition – long, flowy, demure calico print & duffle garments with fur trim and embroidered melton wool mukluks as opposed to the traditional shorter length, fitted and shapely atigi parkas, knee & thigh high fur mukluks with seal or walrus soles of times past. My Jijuu (Gwich’in grandmother) was also known for her intricate beadwork and sewing skills. Many of the traditional and contemporary clothing styles, materials and values are intertwined in both cultures as we were neighbors, friends, enemies and family.

Here I am a few generations later, with the same traditional knowledge, skills and talent in my blood memory inherited from my long, matrilineal line of Inuit Women, my Gwich’in grandmother and her bloodline. These ancient skills and natural talent combined with my contemporary studies and training in hairstyling, fashion, fine art and education allow me to create luxury, Inuvialuit couture garments, accessories, adornment, artwork and cultural education under my own fashion label and business Taalrumiq.  Taalrumiq is my traditional Inuvialuit name, named after my great-Naanak in the customary Inuvialuit way by local elders in my community when I was a baby.  It took me my whole life to accept, reclaim and love my Inuvialuit name. The Canadian Government dehumanized us, taking away our Inuit names replacing them with letters and numbers on leather discs worn around our necks like dog tags, in addition to being assigned random English names and birthdates.  My Mother was ‘W.3-1241.’  W for the Western arctic, area 3 and the 1241st Inuvialuk to be registered.  Despite this, many Inuvialuit have both English and traditional names, and though our traditional names may not be on ‘official’ government documents and identification, they are still valid and true names that carry meaning, acknowledge our ancestral lineage and strengthen our Indigenous identity. This part of our history is important to remember, not only for us but for all Canadians. This is part of why my label is called Taalrumiq.  We also believe that you take on personality traits and characteristics of your atiq (namesake) and having touched and seen some of my atiq’s traditional skin and fur sewing and preferences for bright, bold accent colours, I believe this is true!

When we work with fur, the scent, feel, process and completed products are a sense of nostalgia, pride, satisfaction and love.  Nostalgia as many of us have memories sitting and sewing with our mothers, grandmothers, elders and women in our community. Pride and satisfaction in a beautiful product made by our own hands, complete with nicks from the needle and marks from pleating the fur and hide and pulling the thread taut. Love because in our culture, to sew for someone is to love them.  You want them to be warm and comfortable in traditionally made custom fit garments, mittens, mukluks and hats. And there is something to be said about wearing traditional clothes that makes you stand taller and prouder. Many of us think fondly of a piece of traditional clothing or accessory made specifically for us by a loved one, made to be comfy and warm, literally wrapped in love.  This is the same way we sew today.

In exchange for Panos sharing industry knowledge and techniques, we shared traditional knowledge, our cultural experiences of life in the Arctic and of course some teasing.  We always tease when we like someone!  We tried to convince Panos to move north (Move to Inuvik! Your wife and daughters will love it!) as we appreciate and respect his willingness to share his expertise.  As a group, we could not get over the immutable fact that what we consider a valuable part of beaver fur (spine) for moccasin or mitten trim because of its ability to withstand wear and tear, was to Panos an unattractive part and avoided in his work!

As the week went on, we learned that Canada has never produced a female furrier according to industry standards; however, we all know women in our communities who hunt, trap, process their own furs and are excellent seamstresses.  In fact, one of the attendees was none other than Eleanor Elias, a well known and respected expert trapper, huntress and seamstress. A role model we all looked up to who was did amazing things during her time living out on the land.  We also heard from Panos that Canada has the world’s best quality furs. This we agree on as we know from experience that our high quality furs allowed our ancestors to survive and help visitors to our lands survive, and sparked the fur trade upon which Canada was built.

So, where do we go from here?  In the current decline of the fur industry due to factors such as animal rights activism against fur, lower demand for fur products and laws that prevent exporting certain fur types, what is the future of the fur industry? As Indigenous people we are in a unique position to participate in, support, educate and promote and benefit economically from fur and the fur industry.  What can this look like?  Perhaps investing in a professional furrier training program in Canada?  Agreements and partnerships with various Indigenous groups to have fur cooperatives and offer contemporary fur garment construction programs? Remove restrictions on fur trade across international borders?  Have animal rights activists visit Tuktuuyaqtuuq in -50°C (-58° F) winters with extreme windchill so they truly appreciate the value and necessity of fur and stop vilifying fur providers and consumers? 

While I don’t know the future of the global fur industry, I do understand the importance of fur to our people and communities. I have spent a significant amount of time creating compelling digital content in short format videos to educate and demonstrate the practicality of fur in real life situations and its importance in my culture.  I know that Inuvialuit, Gwich’in and other Indigenous people have used and relied upon fur and fur products since time immemorial.  We will continue to do so in order to practice our culture, traditions and out of absolute necessity.  We are also a modern people with a right to participate in the global economy and offer a variety of contemporary fur products and clothing. 

As a consumer you can support the fur industry by purchasing Indigenous made and designed fur products, follow Fur Canada social media and blogs to learn more about the fur industry and standards. Follow and learn from various Indigenous Artists, Designers and Nations, many of whom are on various social media platforms.  When you purchase fur garments and accessories you are purchasing slow fashion, high quality heirloom pieces that will last for generations. Fur pieces that are sustainable, biodegradable, warm, luxurious and much better for the environment than faux fur. Proudly wear your furs!  

Taalrumiq Christina King Find me on tiktok, Facebook, Instagram, twitter, YT, LinkedIn @taalrumiq

The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment’s NWT Arts Program held the 3rd annual Sealebration Workshop from February 28-March 1, 2022 in Inuvik, NT. This workshop was open to Indigenous artists, registered in the NWT Arts Program, who work with seal. There was no cost to participate, and all materials and supplies were provided to the artists.

Eight Indigenous artists from three communities (Inuvik, Tuktoyaktuk, and Yellowknife) took part in this five-day workshop. Participants included:

Elizabeth Arey, Tuktoyaktuk
Cathy Cockney, Inuvik
Taalrumiq Christina King, Tuktoyaktuk
Inuk Trennert, Yellowknife
Eliza Firth, Inuvik
Eliana Joe, Inuvik
Eleanor Elias, Inuvik
Peggy Day, Inuvik

The workshop was held at the Midnight Sun Recreating Complex and was instructed by Master furrier, Panagiotis (Panos) Panagiotidis, from Fur Canada. Panos has taught at the Fur School of Kastoria in Greece and has three decades of experience in the fur trade, in Europe and now in Canada. The workshop curriculum focused on skin grading, blocking, pattern design, and using a fur sewing machine and an industrial sewing machine.

NWT Arts also presented their eight workshop video series NWT Arts Workshop Series: Selling Your Art. This workshop series was developed to help NWT Artists to learn about the different ways that are available to sell their artwork. Participants learned about pricing artwork, the importance of creating an artist portfolio, marketing, and how to sell their artwork.

An industrial sewing machine and a fur sewing machine were purchased using the project budget. These two machines, as well as the tools below were gifted to the Town of Inuvik. They will be housed in the new facility currently under construction in Chief Jim Koe Park, the Inuvik Welcome Centre. The Inuvik Welcome Centre will be a combination space of both a covered, but open-air wood & beam promenade adjacent to an enclosed visitor reception building that is set to have visual and digital displays for visitor and residents. Also included in this space is a small multi-purpose community room to be used for workshops, meetings, and presentations. These two machines will become part of the offering to community residents, artists and crafters to use, access, and demonstrate throughout the year.

The Town of Inuvik received:
• Techew fur sewing machine
• Jukki industrial sewing machine
• French curve ruler
• Metallic ruler in inuvik –
• Dress Making shears
• Chalk x 3 black, grey, red
• Tracer
• Fur comb
• Blocking plyer
• Round staple remover
• Variety of needles/threads
• Jacquard fabrics

Each participant received a sewing kit that contained:
• French curve ruler
• Metallic ruler
• Dress Making shears
• Furrier knife w blades
• Professional grade needles for hand sewing
• Chalk x3 black, grey, red
• Tracer
• Fur comb

NWT Arts was also able to donate a sewing kit to the Tuktoyaktuk Community Corporation (TCC) who has a fur sewing machine for artists in the community to use.

At the end of the workshop, each participant filled out an NWT Arts Workshop Survey. The feedback was incredibly positive. The only negative comments were that the workshop wasn’t long enough and that it went by too quickly.

Participant feedback from Taalrumiq Christina King:
“It was wonderful, educational, and life-changing in regards to my work. I learned so much that I look forward to putting into practice.”