Sealskin used to be a luxury item across the U.S. and Europe, a mid-century status symbol featured in ritzy fashion shows.
For decades, fur merchants would trade cash for full pelts, buying stacks of them at a time from Alaska Native hunters. Then in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act put an end to that. Under the law, wildlife products from sea mammals have to be artistically modified before they can be bought or sold among non-native people. The market for raw walrus tusks, strips of whale baleen, and full seal hides went away overnight, replaced with a highly regulated marketplace for crafted goods.
But in the tiny town of Shishmaref, with a population of just over 600, a small business is changing that: a seal tannery.
Glittering and gray
Finished sealskin is a dark gray flecked with black, sleek and shimmering in a way that makes it look almost animated. To the touch, it's both soft and firm, like the outer hairs on a German shepherd. It is used in thick outer garments like hats, mittens, and boots because of its prowess as insulation from cold, which many say is still unmatched by industrially produced fabrics.