When I talk about using fur in costume construction, I am always referring to fake fur. I don't encourage the use of real fur for a number of reasons. First, there is a strong moral argument against the use of products which are often obtained from abused animals. Even if that is not true, the use of real fur may alienate those who do object to the fur industry. Additionally, real fur is less durable as a material and requires a higher degree of maintenance; for a hard-wearing item like a costume, this is not a practical choice.
Guide to Fur Fabrics
Synthetic fur fabrics, sometimes called "deep-pile fabrics", are the quintessential material of the fursuiting art. This section covers some basic information about different types of synthetic furs.Synthetic furs consist of a knit fabric layer (the "backing") and the long fibers forming the furry side (the "pile"). Backings are usually woven from polyester or acrylic, although lycra and cotton are sometimes used to provide some stretch. The pile is almost always acrylic or modacrylic fibers.
Acrylic and modacrylic are closely-related plastic polymers. These polymer chains have a tightly-bonded chemical structure. This is good, since it imparts strength and durability to our fursuits. But these polymers are also chemically-resistant, making it extremely hard to dye synthetic furs. The original color of the fur is bound into the plastic of the pile fibers when the material is manufactured; subsequent color changes need to be affected by getting coloring agents to stick to the fibers within the pile. This is possible through some dyeing procedures or through airbrushing of paints, but it may diminish the texture of the fur slightly.
There is some variance in the quality of plush materials, so be sure to shop around. If you're ordering by mail, I recommend purchasing a sample pack before placing an order; sometimes photos and web catalogs just aren't enough to really get a feel for the materials.
Due to the way the backing connects to the pile, synthetic furs are directional. The pile will naturally try to fall in a particular direction; this is known as the "nap" of the fur. Pattern pieces are often marked with arrows to indicate the nap direction; the fibers of the pile should flow, base to point, in the direction of the arrow.
You can quickly find the nap of a piece of fur by gently brushing your palm over it, moving in a single direction. Note whether the fibers tend to stand at odd angles in the wake of your hand's passage or lie down against the backing in an orderly fashion. They stand up irregularly if you move opposite the nap of the fur and they settle down flat if you move with the nap. If the fibers seem to somewhat stay flat, but with a little sideways bent, you are probably rubbing your hand perpendicular to the nap.
The nap on a bolt of fur will always run parallel to the selvage edges of the material. (The selvage edge is the rolled edge along the length of the fabric; it's a product of the knitting machinery that produced the fur.) So the flow of the fur is always along the length of the rolled material.
Keeping a fursuit clean is always tricky. It is possible to wash fur, although repeated washings will start to diminish the shiny and lustrous texture of the material. You can avoid having to wash the costume as frequently by employing some antibacterial spray after each use.
It's best to clean fur with a gentle detergent, such as Woolite. Hand wash in cold to warm water, if possible. Work the detergent gently through the fur and then rinse thoroughly. If you don't have time to hand wash the costume, turn it inside-out (so the fur is on the inside) and run it through a washing machine on the gentlest cycle.
Fur fabrics need to be air-dried. Never put fake fur in a dryer!
The heat of the dryer will cause the fibers to contract and curl, resulting in a matted, ugly mess; it may permanently ruin the fabric and the fursuit. Instead, place the item in an area with good ventilation, using fans if necessary. Support the fur or lay it on a flat surface. If left on a hanger, the weight of the water will distort the fabric as it dries. (Waterlogged fur is heavy!) A fursuit may take several days to dry, so be prepared to wait.