Ermine is a Royal and judicial fur; but, with us, sumptuary laws have long ceased to exist. It is one of the furs of heraldry, and is worn by the King and Queen, by judges, and on the State robes of peers and of certain high officials.
The ermine of commerce is taken from a species of stoat, which wears a white dress during the winter season. It has a body about 10 inches long and 2 1/2 inches wide, and its tail is about 4 inches in length. It has the short legs and the slender body of the weasel - its poor relation. And, like others of its species, it is a small, restless, and - one must add - bloodthirsty animal.
It moves with great quickness, climbs trees well, swims easily, and makes its home among rocks, stones, and other rough surroundings. It wears a brown coat in summer, and changes to pure white in winter, with the exception of its nose, tail, and whiskers, which always remain black. In snowy regions the protective value of this white fur is obvious; and that the change occurs in connection with a lowered temperature seems certain, although the physiology of the process is not as yet understood. The creature breeds at the end of winter, and, like a cat, carries its young by the nape of the neck into a place of safety.
The ermine is distributed in the northern parts of Europe, Asia, and America, but has been found as far south as the Italian Alps and the Pyrenees. Its movements are rapid, and its capture is beset with difficulty. Moreover, it is shy and wary and hard to trap, since only a jet-black tail is visible as the little animal flits across the expanse of snowfields. The trapper often makes his lure of twigs of wood, the smallest of steel traps being too heavy for the best specimens.
A hunter will often put grease on his hunting-knife, and lay it down on the trails of the ermine. And when the little white form appears the grease attracts it, and it licks the blade of the knife, only to find that its tiny tongue is frozen hard to the ice-cold steel, that the knife is too heavy to move,
Dress and that its frantic struggles to escape are useless. One can only hope that the hunter puts the poor creature at once out of its misery.
Ermine skins are imported from Norway, Lapland, Siberia, and the Hudson Bay Territory, but the best skins come from Siberia. The choicest ermine is soft and pure white, and a fine skin costs from £1 upwards. The skins that have a yellowish tinge are far less valuable. In fact, the price depends on colour and quality, and therefore fluctuates considerably.
Good ermine rose to a high price in 1902, and is likely to be valuable again in 1911. A long coat of the best ermine now costs from 250 to 300; a long stole, about 100; a short tie, from £8 to £14; and a big muff, from 15 to 25. Real tails are used to trim the best ermine, but for the cheaper sort the tails are imitated by means of bits of dark fur taken from the skunk or the squirrel.
Ermine has been the Royal fur of England since the time of Edward III., who forbade its use by anyone who was not of blood royal. And there was a law in Austria to the same effect, which has remained in force up to the present period.
Our Royal ermine, known as miniver, must have a Word of explanation. Strictly speaking, this fur is the pure white skin of the Siberian miniver squirrel, but the name is also applied to ermine when unvaried by the usual black tail tips. In either case, the spots required are made from Persian lamb or from sealskin. If from the former, they are tiny morsels of silky fur obtained from between the toes of the black lamb; but sealskin is invariably used for the best miniver. For instance, an expert declares that ten thousand small bits of sealskin will be Worked into the miniver which will line the cloak of King George V. on the day of his Coronation.
Again, the Royal crown is bordered with a band of ermine, with one row of black spots. Ermine, moreover, plays a big part in the robes and coronets of peers and peeresses. Their coronets have a band of spotted ermine, and ermine appears on their robes according to their place in the peerage. A duke's crimson velvet mantle is edged with miniver, and the cape is furred with miniver, having four rows of dark spots on each shoulder. A duchess will have the cape of her crimson velvet mantle furred with miniver, five inches in breadth, and varied (" powdered " is the correct term) by four bars or rows of ermine. A marquis's robes have but three and a half bars of ermine, and a marchioness has but three and a half bars of ermine and a miniver edging, which is reduced to four inches in breadth. An earl's mantle is distinguished from the preceding by having but three bars of ermine, and his countess has on her cape only three inches of miniver. And the scale descends, as a viscount and viscountess have only two and a half rows of ermine; and a baron and baroness must content themselves with only two bars of this fur, and with but a bare two inches of miniver edging.
Ermine is light in weight, Wears well, and will stand repeated cleanings, but it has one grave fault: it is fatally easy to imitate. There is no material used in articles of dress in which fraud is so frequent as in furs, nor in which there is such ample scope for cheating.
Unless a woman has special knowledge, she is entirely at the mercy of her furrier. Sham ermine is made from shorn and prepared white rabbit skins, or from white fur taken from the lower part of the squirrel. But the fraud can be easily detected, as the best rabbit skin will not bear comparison with the poorest ermine. In the case of imitation fur the hair is soft, and will soon wear at the edges, and it has none of the fineness and gloss of real ermine. And tails are seen as mere strips of curled black fur upon even a slight examination.