Terminology: What is astrakhan?

Astrakhan (also spelled astrachan) is, properly speaking, the tightly curled fleece of the fetal or newborn karakul (also spelled caracul) lamb.  Less accurately, it can also refer to the fleece of fetal or newborn lambs from other species, or a knitted or woven fabric that imitates the looped surface.

Astrakhan has a distinctive tight, whorled, loopy surface with a slight sheen.  The younger the lamb, the tighter and shinier the loops.  True astrakhan comes in a range of colours from pale golden yellow to black, though black is the most desirable.

Evening Cape of silk ruched to imitate astrakhan, Lanvin, Jeanne, Winter 1935 V&A

This may be the part where you are thinking “fetal or…wait, what!?!”.

Yes, the most desirable form of astrakhan is that from a lamb 15-30 days away from being born, and it is sourced by killing both the ewe and the unborn lamb.

There are other ways to source astrakhan: either by waiting for the lamb to be born, or by utilizing the pelts of lambs that are born dead (beware that some companies selling lamb-ewe fetal kill astrakhan describe it as ‘stillborn’ – a euphemism if I ever heard one!), or die shortly after birth in adverse weather conditions.

The last two options, stillborn lambs and ones that died within their first few days, are probably how astrakhan first became used: peasants sought to wring any value that they could from a dead animal.

It’s no surprise that there were enough lamb mortalities to start a fashion for the pelts of Karkul sheep.  The sheep are from the high mountainous regions in Central Asia, an area with very severe and unpredictable weather which would easily contribute to a high lamb die-off.

Astrakhan (the Russian name) is also known as broadtail, Persian lamb, Karkul lamb, karakulcha,  krimmer (another Russian term), agnello di Persia (an Italian term also used by posh fashion magazines trying to be..well…posh), breitschwanz (German, used by somewhat less posh fashion magazines)garaköli bagana (in Central Asia), slink or slinky (usually used for generic newborn lamb fleece, not that of the Karakul sheep), and finally, swakara (for ‘South West African Karakul’)  if it comes from Namibia, where a population of the sheep was introduced in the early 20th century.  There is no standard as to whether most of the names should be capitalized or not.

The name used for astrachan can differentiate between how the fur is sourced (newborn vs. fetal), but there is no international standard for most of the usages, so the name is usually not a guarantee of the type of fur you are getting.  The U.S. Fur Products Labeling Act (16 C.F.R. Part 301) for example, designates broadtail as specifically fetal, while a New Zealand company emphasizes that its broadtail is exclusively from natural lamb casualties.

The use of astrakhan dates back centuries in Central Asia and the Middle East, where it was used in traditional garments and gave its name to the Karkul hat.

Hat, wool & silk with metal embroidery and astrakhan lining, Iran, 1820-1880, V&A

Bowl featuring a man wearing an astrakhan hat, ca. 1800-1830, Shiraz Persia (Iran), V&A

Astrakhan has always been a luxurious fur: far more pricey than most sheepskins.  When the Shah of Persia was crowned in 1914 they used an astrakhan hat when the official crown was too heavy, and a few years later Warren G. Harding’s wife, the First Lady of the US, purchased an astrakhan coat for the phenomenal price of 6000 GBP (and this at the same time that the Hartnell wedding dress cost just 53GBP!)

While astrakhan fur probably made it into Western fashion at numerous points in history, the earliest uses of the term ‘astrakhan’ (or variations on the spelling) in Western fashion that I am aware of are in the 19th century.  ZhoZho found a Regency fashion plate featuring ‘astracan’ fur, though if the fur featured in the plate is astrakhan, it is a very rare white variety.

From Rudolph Ackerman's The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufacturers, &c. Hand-coloured etching on paper. Vol. 5, Feb. 1, 1811, via ZhoZho

The Victorians loved Astrakhan.  Its dark, heavy, glossy, ornate surface fitted perfectly with ornate aesthetic in the late 1860s and 70s, and the heavy, fashions at the end of the 19th century.

Page 7 Advertisements Column 4 Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXIII, Issue 3070, 20 May 1867, Page 7

 In the 1860s the notorious Countess de Castiglione posed for a whole series of photographs in a paletot covered in astrakhan.

Le Caracul (L'Astrakhan) Pierre-Louis Pierson (French, 1822–1913) 1860s, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 1975.548.154, Met

Astrakhan was popular  as collars and trimming, as well as full jackets and coats (if you could afford them!) from 1890 to 1908.

'Lanpher Furs, North Star Brand. Lanpher, Skinner & Co., St. Paul, Minn. Season 1906-7. 72 pages, page 5, via Wikimedia Commons

Astrakhan was universally popular for the first half of the beginning of the 20th century.  The Edwardians loved it, it was all the rage again in 1916-19, and, along with all forms of lamb fur, and (lets face it, pretty much all fur). It was popular again at the end of the 1920s, and then again throughout the 1930s, where it particularly appeared in hats, the new trend for sport wear, and the Russian military-inspired fashions, particularly paired with the Cossack hat.

A very new caped coat in black cloth, velvet, or crepe, with shawl collar and cuffs of black astrakhan. Evening Post, 1 December 1928

Despite its 19th century popularity, it doesn’t seem that attempts were made to cultivate Karakul lambs outside of Central Asia until the early 20th century, when a flock was established in the US, and a group was brought to Argentina.  Ten years later, in the 1920s, a population was established in Canada, and one in Texas, and one in Libya, which quickly became profitable.  To the best of my knowledge the Libyan sheep are the only ones that are still being farmed commercially.

Astrakhan and possom fur coat, 1920s

Astrakhan has experienced resurges in popularity throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century, and has appeared on catwalks within the last few years, despite the overall decline in popularity in fur, and arguments against it.

The ethical arguments for and against astrakhan aren’t new.  A 1905 article explains how the mother and baby are both killed to source the fur, but claims that as the meat is eaten, it is not inhumane.  Unfortunately it appears that today most commercial astrakhan is raised and killed almost exclusively for the fur.

Despite my acceptance of vintage fur, and the availability of ethically (natural death) sourced slink astrakhan in New Zealand, I just can’t bring myself to wear it.  I know that it is illogical, it’s the ‘Bambi’ effect, and doesn’t ‘match’ with my other garment choices, but that doesn’t change my reaction.  Sometimes people aren’t logical: that’s what makes us human.

Sources:

O’Hara, Georgina, The Encyclopedia of Fashion: From 1840 to the 1980s.  London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.  1986

The Humane Society, Investigation: Karakul Sheep and Lamb Slaughter for the Fur Trade, Updated October 24 2009

And a huge thank you to all the commenters on yesterday’s post with your links to slink skin sellers in NZ!

21 Comments Post a Comment
  1. MrsC says:

    Aha, thank you so much for clearing up my murky understandings. It’s the ‘kill mother and baby’ aspect that was lingering in my brain as being icky and horrible but I couldn’t remember exactly what the horrible part was. Also, I’ve only ever thought of astrakhan as the black, strangely wiggly and wormy curled fur, being used to the more generally tightly curled sort as ‘poodle’ fur (fake of course!). So I’ve not associated astrakhan with slinky for both those reasons. But of course when a demand is created then what once naturally occurred becomes forced, and that is where cruelty takes over from pragmatism. That’s what I cannot abide about humans – greed will drive behaviours that we would never otherwise consider. Such a terrible downside of having free choice…
    Total side note, in the 90’s there was a brief fashion for having one’s hair styled like astrakhan, just in a bun at the back. Quite striking!

  2. Amanda says:

    Wow. I had not heard of this before and just wow. I agree with MrsC above- its the whole kill mother and baby aspect. I can see the origins of why it was used to begin with but people get greedy and in an unregulated industry that’s where things get murky.

  3. Lynne says:

    I really, really like that ruched silk evening cape! So smart and so wearable!

  4. Rachel says:

    The whole natural causes thing is interesting. I work in dairy cow research, and I know that late calvers in dairy herds are often induced (as are overdue women). From a purely financial point of view I would assume it more efficient to induce pre-term lambs for broadtail and keep the mother alive – she can then resume oestrus cycles and be impregnated again. Farmers in NZ at least definitely care about their animals, and not just as a financial investment :)

    I have known about slinkskin for as long as I can remember – my mother has a pair of chocolate brown slinkskin gloves – suede on the outside and slink on the inside which are just gorgeous. As I’m familiar with the origin of slinkskins (having spent enough holidays on sheep farms and doing runs round the farm to pick up the lambs that didn’t make it through the night) I guess I don’t find that so horrific.
    I think perhaps the demand (at least in times since induction of labour has become commonplace) has not been high enough. There is also the aim of keeping something rare and therefore expensive which makes large supply undesirable. Thank goodness!!!!!

    • I think that with fetal astrakhan there is actually something about the birthing process that changes the wool and makes it less ‘desirable’. Fashion is really weird and awful sometimes!

  5. Dawn says:

    Humans aren’t logical. I love it. I can eat an adult cow but can bring myself to eat veal. It feels abusive…absurd!

  6. StephC says:

    I didn’t know about all of that… So sad.

    They kill alpacas as a general rule to use their fur. I used to LOVE working with alpaca, now it’s just kind of icky to me. Except the handspun I get from this crazy lady I know how keeps alpacas and kind of “gets” them.. She brushes them and spins that into yarn….

    • Lynne says:

      In New Zealand it is remotely possible that alpacas might be killed for their skins (though I have never heard of it – the animals are much too valuable!), but they are shorn of their fleece. Undignified as a process, but not damaging. If you are in NZ, buying alpaca fibre is just fine. And very lovely fibre it is, too.

      • Iarnulfr says:

        I help out fairly often with some NZ alpaca breeders. Although we don’t specifically kill for the skins, whenever we kill for the meat, or an animal needs to be put down or has died of natural causes, we keep and cure the skin.

    • Iarnulfr says:

      All the alpaca and llama wool in produced Australia/NZ is shorn, and as in Bolivia/Peru they shear the wool from the semi-wild vicunya camellids in big musters once a year, I’d be surprised if they exclusively killed their domestic alpaca just to get the wool, when they shear their much stroppier and only semi-domesticated vicunya relatives. They do kill alpaca for the meat, so it may be that some alpaca wool is sourced from the meat animals, but its not the main production method by any means.

  7. Interesting tidbit about karakul hats – I didn’t know that, and it got me thinking. In Czech, there’s a word for some kind of hat – cap, really – “karkulka”, popularised by our version of Little Red Riding Hood, where it’s not hood but “karkulka”. Nowadays that’s, basically, the only use of it. Our ethymological dictionary says it’s from Latin “caracala” (or some such word), but it made me and my sister wonder whether by any chance the Romans got that word from the Persians…

  8. Rachel says:

    bibianblue.comJust had to pop back and add this link to the commentary. Came across this divine Spanish corsetry site, where they have an Astrakhan corset and matching stole “perfect for the vintage look”
    Good, bad or ugly?????

    http://www.bibianblue.com/shop/es/corsets/151-ursa.html

  9. jean williams says:

    HI
    I have a brown •Astrakahan coat with fur mink collar bought for me by my mother in 1968 for my 21st Birthday it is in mint condition. The linning is silky and material is printed with PARIS made in france. I was wondering how much is it worth and were is the best place to sell it
    jean williams
    0191 5281381

    • Hi Jean,

      I don’t do valuations, and what it’s value is (probably not that much actually – vintage furs aren’t really worth that much) will depend hugely on where you are. I’d advise taking it to a local antique or vintage store and seeing what they would give you for it.

    • Kimbre says:

      Hi Jean,

      I have worked as a clothing appraiser previously for consignment stores and bridal boutiques in the Midwest. I am afraid that for the most part, Dreamstress is correct, vintage furs aren’t really worth THAT much, but a vintage fur COULD BE worth a great deal to the right individual, or collector. The important thing to remember in matters such as these is who your audience, or prospective buyer is / might be.

      Having said that, were I you, I might think about placing the piece in a consignment store, where you have some input as to the pricing of the item. Don’t go overboard on pricing — try to be reasonable in that department, because you’re probably not going to get rich if the item sells, but you will at least be getting a percentage of whatever the item is ultimately worth to you.

      Should there be no consignment store in your area, do an Internet search for a Furrier and perhaps see if they can assist you in appraising, or maybe even reselling the item. If that doesn’t work, IMO try selling your item on a site like eBay, or Bonanza. Good luck!

  10. Su Compton says:

    I’ve just read about a place on the Volga, where it enters the Caspian Sea, called Astrakhan. Does anyone know the connection between this place and the hat?

  11. shastasother says:

    Thanks so much for this information. I have a few vintage coats made of black knobby fabric of varying quality. It is so nice to learn about what it might be or, more likely, what it was modeled after. And fascinating to get a history. I look forward to reading more on your site. Keep up the great work!

  12. Kimbre says:

    Well don’t I feel like a ghoul. I have owned SEVERAL vintage Astrakhan coats, jackets, muffs, and stoles… I absolutely love them, too. I admit that I was sort of appalled at the way this pelt is sourced traditionally, but there is nothing in the world like Astrakhan outerwear and people, when they see it, (at least in my experience) don’t even KNOW it’s a real fur. They mostly think it’s synthetic, or artificial because of it’s nap.

  13. Brenda says:

    I have a vintage coat that belonged to a very special lady who passed away at 95 . I inherited this coat and am interested in it’s age and origin . I have been told it astrachan fur collared (white with a tinge of light brown) and can only be cleaned by a furrier. Would love to know more if any one can help.

  14. Thanks so much for the info! I put a link to your page on my shop since you did all the research. I was clueless about the muff that came in a ‘lot box’ I bought at an auction.

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