When Mark Valente first saw Beaver Island, Michigan he was instantly compelled. Taken with the island’s untouched wilderness and the close-to-the-earth lifestyle its inhabitants enjoyed, he moved there permanently in 1975 and made his living trapping animals, raising foxes and doing auto-body work. Years later, his girlfriend and now business partner, Chicagoan Laura Green joined him. In the intervening years, Mark’s business had changed. He’d begun to sell furs at auction and had purchased a 1940‘s fur sewing machine on ebay. The machine arrived without instructions, so he tinkered with it, then started designing his own patterns for mittens, hats and scarves. Eventually Valente began selling his pieces at a local artesian market, but when Green arrived, the two took Valente’s wares to a national market, creating FlattailFurs on Etsy. Now the couple sell not only winter gear, but jewelry and accessories made from feathers collected from the guinea fowl, pea fowl, and chickens they raise. Our Town spoke with Valente and Green about the whole endeavor.
Our Town You either trap or raise the animals used in your products as well as create and sell your products. What’s it like to take part in all aspects of the process?
Mark Valente Very satisfying. I started out trapping because I enjoyed being in the woods and working with the animals. When I starting creating and sewing, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. The more I created, the more ideas came to me for creating new and different items. With the beaver we use practically every part of the animal for something. We use the teeth for jewelry, the feet for jewelry and backscratchers, the tails are used to embellish other products and used for coin purses, the bones are used in jewelry, the meat is nutritious and what's not eaten by humans is processed into food for the fox that we raise. It's just a really good feeling to be able to take something from the land and create.
OT What would you say to someone who objects to fur on ethical grounds?
Laura Green I guess we would say that thankfully we are living in the United States of America and thankfully they aren't being forced to purchase something that goes against their morals. Animal husbandry, trapping in particular, is one of the cornerstones of this nation. It was the early fur trappers who discovered new territory. Both of us feel this way of life has an authenticity that neither of us could find in the city. On the island, you can't just go out and set traps and expect success. You have to learn about the animal, its habits, its life, how the overall population is faring. It not only takes skill to trap an animal successfully and humanely, but wisdom to know when to trap and when not to. When you are successful trapping, the job doesn't end there. You now are on a time table to process the animal properly so that every part you intend to use does not go to waste. In terms of the animals we raise, again you need to learn about the animal, it's needs, nutrition, even behavior. If you do not properly care for an animal then that neglect will show up physically. We love what we do and we bend over backwards to make sure all of our "critters," as we call them, have the best care.
OT Winters are long where you live. How do you get through?
MV The same as in the summer only we wear more clothes. There is always something to fix, feed, take care of, or walk. Not to mention winter is trapping season and the time of year to practice product development. We get to mess around with new ideas and get everything stocked up for the store to sell in the summer months.
OT You make feather jewelry from the birds you raise. How did you get the idea to do that?
LG I kept gathering the feathers that Mr. Peacock (Yes, that’s his name.) molted and told Mark how they would make gorgeous earrings. "Then why don't you make some?" he replied. I did a little research on the internet, made a pair which I ended up wearing to work. I got lots of inquiries, and they took off. I make hairclips, necklaces, earrings, earcuffs, and I even made my first gift card box holder last year for a friend's wedding.
OT How do you get inspired to create new designs?
LG Our main source of inspiration is customer feedback. People let us know what things they would like to see, have seen elsewhere, and different tweeks on current items. Most importantly, you just have to go out there and make something. When you first get the idea for a piece you want to mull it over and over until you get it right, and that doesn't work very well. I know for Mark and myself we just need to start--whether we know where it's going or not--and then new ideas pop up.
OT How has Etsy impacted your company?
LG Etsy has been very positive, but selling anything via the internet has its own learning curve. It's interesting to see that certain items sell better at our store (items that can be touched and tried on) and others sell better on Etsy (product photos are the be all end all). As popular as I think Etsy is, it still amazes me how many people have never heard of it! We're glad there's still a huge growth potential out there.
OT What are your long term goals for the company?
LG There is a quote by Michael Fortin, "Do what you love and the business will follow," so I guess the long term goals of the company would be to not lose sight of this message. As long as we can continue to provide for ourselves by doing what we love, what more can you ask for?
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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