Of all the fur, there is one that truly represents the West — buffalo.
Merlin’s Hide Out in Thermopolis is known for its buffalo coats and hides, and this year its coats are making an appearance in “The Hateful Eight,” a Quentin Tarantino film that opened in limited 70 mm format Dec. 25 and in digital nationwide Dec. 31.
The film takes place a few years after the Civil War and is set in Wyoming. It tells the story of a bounty hunter, played by Kurt Russell, the fugitive he’s captured, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and strangers they meet along their trip and while waiting out a blizzard. Throughout the film, Russell dons a massive buffalo fur coat — the creation of Barb and Merlin Heinze of Thermopolis.
The buffalo coat, meant to give Russell’s character the silhouette of a bully, was a key costume piece for the film, costume designer Courtney Hoffman said in a press statement. She wanted the character to appear menacing and large. The coat she envisioned, inspired by one in the Autry Museum of the American West archives, was complicated with varying lengths of hide. Hoffman needed eight coats so similar they could be replicas. Some people said it wasn’t possible.
Barb Heinze, 57, an owner of Merlin’s Hide Out, received a call from Hoffman in September 2014. Barb didn’t hesitate accepting the job. Each year, Merlin’s Hide Out ships 400 buffalo hides across the country and internationally. They know buffalo. It seemed like just another job until Barb broke the news to her husband, then the magnitude of the job sunk in.
“Yes, it was just another day, and yes, it was really cool,” Barb said.
The Heinzes’ foray into buffalo hides, and other fur coats and garments, started as a hobby. Merlin, 59, grew up in Thermopolis, hunting and trapping in the area. About 15 years ago, when he was still working for one of the state’s irrigation districts, he decided to try to make a pair of beaver gaiters to replace the ones he’d worn out. The couple tarped the floor of the spare bedroom for a work space. Merlin trapped the beaver, taught himself to tan it, and sewed the gaiters. Then he turned to other animals — foxes and coyotes — perfecting the tanning process. About a year later, a friend asked Merlin to tan a buffalo hide for him.
Merlin’s client list grew to the point he decided to quit his job and work with hides full time. In 2005, the couple built their first facility. It included 1,200 square feet of tanning space for Merlin’s Hide Out and a place to store the pickup.
“The pickup never made it inside,” Barb said.
Soon there was so much demand Merlin started turning work away. He didn’t have room. Barb quit her part-time job selling insurance to work with Merlin full-time a few years later. In 2013, they opened a 5,000-square-foot shop, which already feels too small.
Customers are attracted to the idea of handcrafted, one-of-a-kind garments, Barb said. They are also drawn to the idea of fur and leather. “We’re bringing back a craft that has been long forgotten,” Barb said.
Creating a good fur starts from the moment the animal is harvested. It needs to be deftly skinned and properly salted. Merlin rarely traps anymore. He spends his time in the shop, painstakingly preparing furs brought in by customers, purchased at auctions or contracted from special buyers.
“If the tanning process has been done properly, it’s soft and supple,” Barb said. “If it’s not done properly, it’s stiff. Our hides are soft and supple.”
Seamstresses sew the hides for garments using patterns Barb and Merlin designed and perfected, but no two animals are alike. Every hide is unique. You can’t buy three yards of coyote. You have to work with the hide you have. Working with buffalo is especially challenging, but the coats, which start at about $3,000, are worth it for people who want something authentically western.
Today, animals are raised and bred for coat colors. But not buffalo, Barb said. “Buffalo hide, it’s just the real deal.” With its wool undercoat, no fur is warmer. It’s rugged and harder to tan and sew than mink and other furs.
The hides are only good for coats about 30 days out of the year from early December to mid-January when the hair has set, but the animal hasn’t started to shed, Barb said.
It takes three full days, 11 pattern pieces (not including the lining and pockets) and two hides to build a buffalo coat, which weighs between 12 and 14 pounds.
The Heinzes now outsource most tanning for buffalo hides due to space, but Barb grades the furs for quality, looking at color combinations, length and texture of the fur, as well as overall appearance and how it will look put together in pattern pieces. She looked at more than 300 buffalo hides before she hand-selected about 16 for “The Hateful Eight” coats. She had to do more than create a beautiful coat, she had to replicate the museum coat — eight times. Making them look identical was the hardest part, Barb said.
It likely will be difficult for even Barb to differentiate the coats when she sees the movie on the big screen. The Heinzes reserved the Thermopolis theater Jan. 1 for a private screening party. And while they built the coats as costumes, they can be worn in daily life. Merlin is easily recognized in Thermopolis. He’s the one wearing the coyote coat, skunk cap, fur mittens and, of course, beaver gaiters.