"Far from the
range, buffalo hair, newly pantented and soft as cashmere, is
In this synthetic age of ultrastretch lycra and wrinkle-free
microfibers, Ruth Huffman, right, says she has discovered the
newest wonder fabric and that it is 100 percent natural. You
can throw it in the washer and dryer, and not only will in not
shrink or wrinkle, she says, it comes out feeling like cashmere.
Through the ages textile workers have made fabric from all manner
of animal hair - including hog and kangaroo.
But Ms. Huffman appears to be the first to have patented a way
of knitting fabric from buffalo hair. Last month she received
United States patent 6,385,954.
In the early 1990's, Ms. Huffman then a homemaker and the mother
of three nearly grown children, was going through a divorce
and was in search of a profession. So she began making clothes
for the wealthy women of Dallas and showing and selling her
creations successfully through trunk shows, earning a mention
in Women's Wear Daily. Then in 1994, Ms Huffman read a National
Geographic article about the growing herds of American buffalo
(more correctly called bison), which were making a comeback
after nearing extinction at the end of the 19th century.
Why not try making clothes of bison hair, she thought. Through
the National Bison Association, she found a rancher in Colorado
who was selling 1,000 pounds of hair. When she shared her idea
with Doug Adkins, the husband of a friend and a fellow parishioner
at First Baptist in Dallas, he wrote a check to buy and process
the bison hair. "Ruth was a person who was extremely talented
and needed push in life," Mr. Adkins is a partner with
Gardere, Wynne, Sewell, a prominent law firm in Texas. So Ms.
Huffman negotiated a price and had U.P.S. pack up the bison
hair and ship it to Dallas. "It was probably one of the
most unusual shipments U.P.S. has had to make," Ms. Huffman
said. She had the hair cleaned and spun into yarn, which she
then knitted into custom clothing for clients.
And then one day she did what many successful inventors have
done: she acted on a wild hunch. She took a 2-foot-by-3-foot
swatch of the material and washed it on the regular hot water
cycle of her machine and the threw in the dryer. "It didn't
shrink," she said, "and it come out soft and fluffy,
just like cashmere." Then she went back to a client for
whom she had painstakingly made a buffalo hair suit with a hand-crocheted
picot collar. "I have to have it back," Ms. Huffman
recalled telling the woman. With "great fear and trembling,"
she washed it and put in the dyer. "The same thing happened,"
she said. "It came out just like cashmere." Since
then she has sold her buffalo creations to a clientele ranging
from Cherokee tribesmen in Oklahoma to fashion mavens in Tokyo...
Ms. Huffman said she hoped to reach a broader market with
scarves and mittens and knitted caps and is in the process of
securing financing for a textile mill of her own devoted solely
to processing and knitting buffalo hair.
Native Americans originally stuffed pillows with bison hair
and plaited it to make ropes. But it didn't occur to them to
weave or knit it until frontiersmen showed them how, according
to Ms. Huffman, who says she has native American ancestry.
"It's been done by hand before, but I'm the first one to
ever put this together commercially," she said. Ms. Huffman
acknowledges that she does not yet offer a wide range of colors
for her creations. She is experimenting with a proprietary process
to make a cream-color version. Otherwise, however, clients can
have any color they want - as long as it's chocolate brown.