Paula Lishman is a conservationist, fashion designer and represents the future of the fur industry in Canada.
Many of her creations involve using beaver, muskrat and fox fur in new ways – as fabrics, threads and yarn – to make a variety of garments ranging from hats, mitts and scarves to head bands, jackets and even armrest covers for wheelchairs. She also makes fabric out of beaver pelts and dyes it in up to 400 colours.
Fur "feels amazing and I think it has a really good future because it's not made of non-renewable products. It's not polluting and it is warmer than anything," said Ms. Lishman, who is also president of the Fur Council of Canada.
"Man has just never been able to reproduce anything that has the sensuality and the feeling of fur," said Ms. Lishman, whose company, Paula Lishman International, is based in Port Perry, Ont.
Canada's fur industry is depending on designers such as Ms. Lishman, who have moved away from making full-length coats and turned instead to using fur in trims and accessories. For now, anyway, the move appears to be working.
Fur sales have been rising steadily in recent years. The number of pelts on mink farms in Canada increased to 2.6 million last year from two million in 2007, according to Statistics Canada. And prices for those pelts have been holding steady at around $100 per pelt on average, compared with about $20 in the early 1990s.
"In the last couple of years, [the market] has really been taking off," Fur Council spokesman Alan Herscovici said.
Prices for wild furs, such as beaver, fox and muskrat, have also been trending higher. Toronto-based North American Fur Auctions reported strong sales at its latest auction in October and sold nearly all of its fur. "The outlook at this time for most of our wild fur products is excellent and is the foundation for another outstanding February sale," the company said in a recent report.
Another big factor for the increase in fur production has been growing demand from countries such as China and Russia.
"China now has become by far the most important consumer of fur garments, followed by Russia and, to a lesser extent, [South] Korea," said the North American Fur report. While sales of fur coats have fallen in North America, "the trim trade is reporting a very strong demand."
Animal rights activists question the rosy outlook, saying the fur industry always pushes the same story before the holiday season to boost sales. "It's kind of boring because they do this every year," said Lesley Fox, executive director of the Vancouver-based Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals. "If you look at the statistics, the number of trapped animals is at an all-time low."
Ms. Fox said the industry is becoming desperate, relying on bits of trim products and far-off markets to survive. She added that consumers are often confused by fake fur products that look real, leaving the impression the industry is thriving. "Fake fur looks real, real fur looks fake. And at the end of the day, the fur industry is saying 'fur is back,'" she said.
Ms. Lishman disagrees, and she has no time for critics of trappers or furriers. She argues that trappers are true conservationists and that furriers have become more creative by giving consumers new choices and bringing down the cost of fur-trimmed products. Some of her items sell for as little as $20.
"[Fur] is, to me, the ultimate natural fibre," she said.