Ketchikan’s award-winning Tlingit artist Christy Ruby harvests her own seals and sea otters for their fur and has built a thriving business meticulously preparing and sewing one-of-a-kind wearable art.
Ruby sat down on Nov. 9 to talk with the Daily News about her unique business.
She said that creating and selling her fur pieces has been her full-time profession for about 10 years.
In 2017, she won the 2017 Innovator Award at the Cherokee Art Market.
She added that additionally, “I’ve gotten awards and ribbons for my work for the last six years from the Sante Fe Indian Market.”
Ruby is known for creating pieces with brilliantly dyed sea otter fur, and said that she was the first person in the U.S. to dye sea otter fur.
She said that she travels on her boat to Prince of Wales Island to hunt seals and sea otters in order to harvest their pelts.
She described how she began her journey as a fur artist.
“I wanted to make a pair of moccasins for my mother out of seal skin,” she said. “I went to go buy seal skin and it was too expensive. So, I said, ‘How much does it cost to go get a seal? It can’t be that much,’ so I went and found somebody to take me hunting, and I hunted, got my seal, skinned it, fleshed it, took it to the tannery, did it — easy!”
She said that she learned how to butcher and skin her harvested seals by trial and error, however.
“I got it down to where I like it,” she added.
She explained, “I’m one of those people that, I’ll keep working on something until I master it.”
When asked how the seal meat can be used, she said it can be dried, smoked, jarred or canned. She said that she used to eat the meat herself, but now donates it to Alaska Native wolf trappers.
The hunting and use of sea otters are controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the hunting and use of seals are controlled by the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region Public Affairs Specialist Andrea Medeiros.
In an email to the Daily News, Madeiros also noted that Alaska Native People who reside in Alaska and live on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean may harvest marine mammals for subsistence purposes or for the creation and sale of Native handicrafts or clothing.
Individuals must be at least 25% Alaska Native or be enrolled under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to harvest marine mammals in Alaska.
From an artist’s perspective, Ruby said that the sea otter is easier to sew than seal skin, as it’s fluffier than the seal fur, and so more easily obscures mistakes.
She described sea otter pelts as having “the richest fur in the world. It is the densest and softest fur and it’s easy to work with because it’s all one length.”
She explained that most mammals have fur that varies in length on different parts of their bodies, but sea otter fur is even in color and depth, making it easy to work with and it enables the artist to use every inch of a hide.
A difference between using the seal and sea otter pelts is that, “seal is extremely difficult to tan,” Ruby said.
She said she learned what she sees as the best tanning process for seal skins from a former master tanner who has since passed away, but now she is creating artwork in such volume that she isn’t currently tanning seal skins herself.
Tanners, she said, “have to have the right machinery to do a commercial tan on them. You can’t just do a tan on a round knife.”
The machines for tanning seal skin have a “big giant blade” to shave the pelts all at one time, she said. And seal skin is extremely stretchy, adding another challenge to tanning it.
“It’s like trying to shave a rubber band,” she said.
“It’s not your typical mammal,” she added, explaining that the pelts shrink about 50% after they are skinned.
At present, “the quality of seal tanning right now is OK, but not to standards that I prefer for my customers,” Ruby said.
She said that she ships her seal skins to more distant tanners for that reason.
About a year ago, she gave a talk during one of the Tongass Historical Museum’s “Museum Midday” events.
“I picked apart a fur coat, and told people why it’s so expensive to make a fur coat,” she said about her presentation there, adding that it was an old coat that she had not sewn. “It wasn’t because of the fur, it was because of the sewing that went into doing the fur coat. The many millions of strips of re-sewing the mink to make it look longer. Very detail-oriented.”
On Ruby’s website, crubydesigns.com, there are photos of the many articles she has created, including jackets, moccasins and stoles. Some feature intricate Native Alaskan designs sewn into the garments.
Among the array of designs depicted on her website are seal fur baby slippers; a sea otter scarf with totemic designs; purses made of seal and sea otter fur; brilliant white sea otter scarves with earth-toned, brilliant red or teal accents; seal and sea otter fur hats; seal and sea otter mittens; and sea otter fur teddy bears.
The mittens she creates breathe well, she said, with no synthetic materials. Another useful feature is that seal skin is waterproof, making the garments extremely comfortable in any weather.
Ruby also posts informational videos on her Instagram and YouTube channels. Her YouTube channel is titled C. Ruby Designs Fur.
She now is working on a full-length fur coat designed to mimic a totem pole.
Ruby talked about what motivates her to keep working with her fur art.
“I got into it because there was nobody else doing it the way I wanted to do it,” she said. “I just kind of wanted to up it a notch from your typical. When I saw my sea otter, I didn’t see hats and mittens, I saw glamorous coats with colors, with different sequins and sparkles and bling bling all over.”
She added, “I think I wanted to see sea otter taken up another level, but to get to that level, I didn’t know it was going to be such an uphill climb, with lots of potholes and boulders and rocks in the way. Starting with the furriers that would not share a lick of their information of how to do coats or build up or anything. I hit roadblock after roadblock — I flew to New York three times and begged furriers to teach me something about making fur coats. They wouldn’t budge.”
Ruby said that she thought then, “all right, I’ll go around you and pray for you because you’re going to cut your nose off to spite your face. You’re your own worst enemy when it comes to saving the fur market. If you won’t teach new people your tricks and trade, how do you expect it to survive in a world that hates fur?”
Many segments of society have protested the use of animal fur in clothing and Ruby pointed out that furriers and artists need to mentor each other and share their information freely.
Ruby said that she did eventually find a couple of mentors to teach her the intricacies of creating quality fur coats by hand.
The difficulty of obtaining information from furriers and of countering the anti-fur groups aren’t the only challenges she’s faced, Ruby said. Another difficulty has come simply from the fact that people see sea otters as very adorable, and protest her hunting them.
“They’re all meat to me, they’re all fur to me,” she said of game animals.
Ruby sells her work online, and at only one local retail shop, Alaska Galleries, located in downtown Ketchikan.
Her work is so in demand, Ruby said, that it keeps her very busy.
She mentioned the unique vibrantly dyed fur colors that she uses as a big draw for customers, and she said that she retains customers by offering top-notch customer service.
“The reviews that people give me are all five-star,” she said.
Ruby works with Tubari Ltd Fur Dressers & Dyers in New Jersey to achieve the tanning and dying results she sought for the sea otter fur colors she uses in her pieces.
“They have a specific patented process,” she said.
Ruby said she is mentoring someone currently, and would be interested in coaching more artists who might want to learn the art.
“Eventually, when I get established to where I like and I don’t have to worry so much about my competition I’ll start sharing more information and secrets,” she said.
Her work has been featured over the years in a variety of media.
Ruby said she is slated to be featured in an article about sea otters in the February issue of National Geographic magazine. A NatGeo photographer traveled with her on her 17-foot boat in the rain for four days to capture her process, she said.
Ruby said that when she decides it’s time to move away from creating her fur art, she would like to use her background in graphic design to teach Native Alaskans who own online businesses how to properly list photographs of their items on their websites, as well as to teach them how to write product descriptions.
She added that she also would like to travel to the smaller Southeast Alaska villages to teach those skills. She also hopes to bring her excess fur hides to sell in those villages to allow artisans to utilize them.
Ruby explained why she thinks so many people seek out her products and purchase from her website, especially.
“Quality and the way my work looks,” she said. “It’s different.”