The chinchilla is a small rodent of the squirrel species, and comes from South America. It is found chiefly in Peru and Chili, and has its home far up in the Andes. The best skins are imported from Buenos Ayres and Valparaiso.
Chinchilla fur is exquisite in texture, and delicate beyond expression. It is fine and soft to the touch, and of a clear, bluish grey colour above, passing almost into white on the under parts of the body. Skins such as these come from the pure-bred chinchilla, and the cheaper sort from the cross-bred animal. Chinchilla fur shows a strange mixture of qualities.
Furriers classify the fur as follows: The best skins come from Peru, the next quality from La Plata, and the third and poorest from Bolivia. The finest Peru skins cost from £20 to £25 a piece; those from La Plata about £15; and skins from Bolivia are worth from £8 to £12. The high price which the finest chinchilla has attained may be seen from the following figures. A long, wide stole and a big muff of Peru skins recently made to order were priced at no less a sum than 2,000. This triumph of the furrier's art came from one of the best shops in London. A three-quarter length coat of the same fur would cost over 1,000, and a muff might run from 500 to 650. A coat of La Plata fur could be secured from 350 to £500. But skins of fair quality can be procured at a more reasonable rate. I who write have seen a good chinchilla muff at £50 and a stole from 60 to 80.
Chinchilla, also, is a costly fur on account of its bad-wearing qualities. The colour soon fades, and a London winter means ruin to our cherished chinchilla. Then the skins are thin and tender, and need the most careful manipulation. In fact, the high price of chinchilla, its fragile nature, and the small size of the skins make it one of the most expensive furs in existence.
The chinchilla in form and character approaches nearly to the hare and rabbit. Its body is from nine to twelve inches in length, and its tail is usually six inches. It has big, soft, black eyes, large roundish ears, a bushy tail, long hind-legs, and long moustaches. It is subterranean in its habits, lives chiefly in holes among the rocks and climbs and jumps with great agility. Like most wild things, it is hard to catch, and each year seems to go further away into its rocky fastnesses and to become more unattainable. Also demand regulates supply, and there are those who fear that the chinchilla may be fated to become extinct in a not distant future.
But, sad to say, chinchilla fur lends itself easily to base imitations.
This can be done by means of white rabbit dyed grey, or by clipping and tinting white hare. But, in either case, the result is a poor substitute, and, even to an unpractised eye, more or less easy of detection.
In a previous article mention was made of the recent action of the London Chamber of Commerce in warning the public through the Press of the misnaming of furs and their incorrect description. In a list in my possession the proper name for sham chinchilla is stated to be "White rabbit (dyed)"; the incorrect term, "Chinchilla"; and the permissible style, "Chinchilla coney." But these authorised names too often lend themselves to trickery. However, in a good shop, one relies on the word of one's furrier.
Chinchilla seems to have been a fur that was not much known to the ancients; but in the early history of Peru mention is made of the way in which it was used by the Incas. They wove the hair into a sort of cloth, and the skins, with their dainty fur, made a rich lining for the mantles of their chiefs and nobles. And it is curious to note that the great painters of olden days failed to immortalise chinchilla. Their sitters were decked with sable and ermine, but the soft, grey fur had few admirers.
Chinchilla ranks with silver fox as a fur that is always harmonious. And, on this account, it stands high in favour with the best-dressed women in London, Paris, and Vienna. But chinchilla looks its best when worn by a decided brunette, or, at any rate, by a wearer who has a perfect complexion. It is a fur which needs definite tints, dark hair for choice, or else golden or auburn hair, and, in either case, much brilliance of colouring. For the grey tones of chinchilla accentuate the dull shades of a bad complexion, and it should never be worn by a woman whose skin has the least hint of sallowness. Some women spend large sums on a chinchilla coat or stole - grey, colourless women, who make a sad mistake when they match their clothes to their complexions.
Colours to Wear with Chinchilla
Then this grey fur must be carefully matched with one's other garments. Chinchilla, on no account, should be worn with a brown or fawn frock, but looks its best with grey or black or with a dull shade of mauve or violet. Like sable, it resents bright colours and crude combinations. And it does not trim well, but makes a splendid collar and cuffs to a coat or cloak of black velvet. Then, like ermine and silver fox, it should always be worn with rich materials. It suits neither sport nor travel. nor the simple life, nor any sort of rough surroundings.
Parisians class it with ermine as a fur for spring and early autumn. Indeed, in our recent chilly summers, a chinchilla stole and muff worn with a grey chiffon gown looked - and felt - to great advantage.
Sable, sealskin, silver fox, ermine, and chinchilla make five precious furs, and the sixth is represented by sea-otter. This latter is the imperial fur of China, and at once one of the most costly and durable of furs in existence. Sea-otter is rarely seen except as the collar of a man's coat or of a long fur coat for a woman. One skin suffices for a collar, facing, and cuffs, and in the best quality would cost from 350 to £500.
The sea-otter has its home in the North Pacific, near the Aleutian Islands, and is a powerful creature, often four feet long and ninety pounds in weight, with a strong jaw and massive molars. Its fur is dense, rich, rather long, very fine, and of a dark-brown colour; and silver hairs are found in some of the best specimens. Sea-otter as a fur has one great advantage, it is rarely or never imitated. It is highly prized in Russia, and much worn by men of the Russian nobility.
Opossum as a Substitute
But the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb, and the would-be economist can and will escape from her difficulties. For instance, opossum makes a by no means bad substitute for chinchilla. This fur has two varieties. The best is soft to the touch, of a delicate bluish-grey colour, and comes from Australia. And another animal of the same species has rather hard, wiry fur of a brownish shade, and is found in Virginia and other parts of North America. The skins are small, and their price varies from three shillings to £1 a piece and upwards.
Opossum fur looks best in stoles and for muffs and neckties. It is unsuitable for coats on account of its thickness and fluffi-ness. Articles made of this fur are moderate in price; a stole of the best grey opossum would cost from £20 to £25, and a muff might be about £10. Opossum has for some time past been a favourite fur in Paris, but has never caught on in London and England. In fact, as regards fashion in fur we seem to be strictly conservative. A year or two ago there was a run on fisher fur in Paris, and now they are using putenu, the dark. silky skin of a sort of rat, and neither of these have as yet found much favour in London. As a nation, we are faithful to sable, ermine, sealskin, several sorts of foxes, chinchilla, and now and then to sea-otter.
With regard to these two latter, those in the know declare that the animals have of late become much rarer, and that measures must be taken to prevent their extermination. And as to sable, silver fox, and ermine, there can be no doubt but that year by year the crop gets steadily smaller. And this can be easily explained if we think of their natural habits. The creatures which yield the better sorts of fur are exceedingly wild, and as the half-savage trappers who capture them prosecute their search into more distant parts, the animals flee further north or higher into the mountains, and find it more difficult to procure food in these remote regions.
From time to time ideas have been started as to the possibility of retaining the more valuable fur-bearing creatures within a fenced enclosure. And some years ago a fantastic scheme to harbour and foster the sable in its own home was seriously attempted. But the experiment proved a failure. The sables lost their health, and the skins were poor - yellow in hue and coarse and brittle in texture. Fine close fur is found only upon animals which live in conditions of the greatest hardship and range over a vast territory.
Most of us wear furs, but not one woman in a hundred knows much on the subject. There are three things the choice of which needs the knowledge of an expert; and these three are furs, jewels, and old furniture. And the two first seem the most difficult of selection, for they affect one's looks, and we all of us know that in the world of to-day a woman's best asset is her charm of appearance. And in this respect furs go one better than jewels, for they form at once a frame and a background.
A beautiful chinchilla coat and muff. Chinchilla is one of the most costly and fragile of furs, and is best suited to a brunette with a good complexion
Now for a word on the science of shopping.
First money is wanted, then brains, good taste, and some experience. No one should be taken in by so-called bargains in any of the finer skins, for there will never be a glut in the market of sable, silver fox, sealskin, ermine, or chinchilla. But a reduction in price may be got by ready-money payments.
Then, if economy must be studied. I would advise a woman to buy good and hardwearing furs rather than the fragile sort or those which are but the fancy of the moment. Then she must also take thought of her personal appearance. Furs divide themselves into neutral, brown, black, and white, and can be classified according to texture into flat, fluffy, and velvety. A stout woman will look her best in the smooth velvety furs that are of a dark shade, such as sealskin or musquash, and should carefully avoid fluffy, long-haired skins, such as skunk, bear, and opossum. Sable and sealskin and silver fox suit most of us, While chinchilla favours brunettes, but both it and ermine demand good complexions.
Then the rnon-daine of to-day wants several sets of furs. Her Russian sables will not content her with all her frocks, although they are beautiful with many. She will need chinchilla with her grey gowns, and will want silver fox to wear with brighter colours, and sealskin and moleskin for the country and travelling. And certain furs seem to do best in the evening. These include ermine as a cloak or stole, and white fox or white Thibet goat as a trimming for a cloak or wrapper.