Are they killing sables to make my brushes?
January 13, 2010 12:11 AM   Subscribe

If the paint brush manufacturers are only taking a certain bit of hair from an animal, what happens to the rest of the animal?

Really nice sable hair watercolor brushes are marketed by touting that the bristles come from the hair of the tail of the male kolinsky sable, but only in winter. It sounds silly, but the one brush I have is unlike anything else I've ever used.

However, the more I used it, the more I got to thinking: I have what I fear to be a really naive image of a stable full of the little critters, who get seasonally sheared like sheep to make these brushes. Or maybe they're trapping, sedating, and yanking the hair. Or, and this one seems more likely, they're killing the animal to get the hair. Does anybody know for sure? What do they do with the rest of the animal if they kill it? The manufacturer's website doesn't say anything and Google hasn't really helped.
posted by blackunicorn to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
No, no sable is being killed, so rest easy.

It's actually a weasel that's being killed harvested. The kolinsky is a Siberian weasel (Mustela sibirica), not the far more expensive true sable. And these weasels need killing, as they are infamous among the Chinese for stealing souls.
posted by orthogonality at 12:49 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I know it's really a weasel. I didn't think that was relevant. I am really asking a twofold question:

1) is an animal dying for paintbrushes?

2) if an animal is dying for paintbrushes, is the rest of the body being used for anything? Or, conversely, is the animal being killed primarily for one purpose, and the brushes are being made from the leftover tailparts?
posted by blackunicorn at 1:02 AM on January 13, 2010

I have read on shaving forums that the badgers killed for shaving brushes are subsequently sold for food in Asia, but do not have any data to back this up.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:00 AM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: No shaving, sorry:

Manufacturers obtain the hair for their brushes from hair dealers, who, in turn, get hair in a rough state (pelts, tails, etc.) through the fur industry. The hair dealers 'dress' (de-grease, clean, etc.) the hair, grade it, and bundle it by size and weight. A brushmaker is then offered the different grades and mixtures. If he is not careful, however, he may unknowingly receive summer coat instead of winter coat, or other hair mixed in with the Kolinsky hair.
Also: The Forgotten Fur, Sable Brushes - Not So Lovely. They're slightly contradictory, but I'm inclined to believe the first over the second (ie probably trapping rather than farming for high-grade brushes).
posted by themel at 2:21 AM on January 13, 2010

Check out this TED video (posted to MeFi yesterday) in which Christien Meindertsma outlines how many everyday products—as well as more specialised ones—contain raw materials sourced from a single pig. One of those products was a paintbrush, its bristles made from the pig's hair. Although the pig is ostensibly farmed for meat, single part of the animal is eventually used; I imagine the same would be true of the farmed weasles from which the sable brushes are made. I'm sorry I don't have a definitive answer.
posted by hot soup girl at 3:34 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ooh, is it a Winsor & Newton Series 7?

One of their travelling artists came to town to deliver some materials instruction, and he told me the brushmakers who make these are issued a pile of tails from which to pick and choose, which they did, right down to the individual hair.

He also related a charming anecdote about a watercolourist who leapt shrieking into the Charles River to rescue a Series 7 that had rolled through a crack in the boardwalk.

Yes, the creature dies, but if it is a comfort, he was killed for all his useful parts, not just his tail, and the rest of him is used at other points in the creature processing industry. Watercolour isn't such a groovy avocation for vegans, what with all the tails and the ox gall and stuff. At least they don't make brown out of mummies any more.
posted by Sallyfur at 3:48 AM on January 13, 2010

1) is an animal dying for paintbrushes?

Just paintbrushes? In a capitalist society, probably not. Pet food, fertilizer, soap, mink oil, and bait are some of the possibilities for the rest of the animal. Read more here.
posted by applemeat at 5:58 AM on January 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anecdoteally, and nothing to do with paintbrushes: In my college anatomy class we dissected minks. They came skinned and preserved. The only fur on them was on their little paws. They very very oily. We had very smooth soft hands that semester.

Quite strange, but I liked the idea that they were being used for something more useful than a fur coat.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:23 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the links. Very informative. And for the anecdote about the demo artist. I am talking about a Winsor & Newton Series 7, and I would have called them ridiculously expensive before inquiring about how they're made. Between the hand-manufacturing and the lives of the critters given, they suddenly feel like a bargain.
posted by blackunicorn at 7:26 PM on January 13, 2010

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