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Guest Post: In Defense of the Use of Baleen in Hobbyist and Recreation Corsetry

Last May, I posted a review of Wissner boning (aka “German plastic boning”), and mentioned (okay, kind of ranted) that baleen wasn’t an option for boning as whales are an endangered species.  My friend and fellow costumer Sahrye emailed me privately with some very interesting information on whaling and conservation — she’s a marine biologist and so knows far more about this than I do.  I asked if, in the spirit of discussion, she’d be willing to share what she wrote with readers of my blog and she said she would.

So here you are, my first guest post ever, written by Sahrye — whose blog (It Came From the Stash!) is fabulous, by the way!

In Defense of the Use of Baleen in Hobbyist and Recreation Corsetry

There have been several recent online discussions about the legalities and ethics of using baleen in hobbyist corsetry.  This is my personal opinion, as a marine biologist specializing in coastal and marine issues and an amateur costumer, of the acceptability of using Alaskan native-hunted, American provenance baleen in costume and recreation corsets.  This piece does not represent the opinion of the federal government or any agency of the federal government.  For specific guidance on the legal use of baleen you should contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) ( or Marine Mammal Commission (

This piece is not a discussion of the morality of hunting whales or the rights of Alaskan natives (Inuit/Eskimos) to hunt whales.

I have three main points: 1) why it is legal and ethical to buy baleen as a “native handicraft”; 2) the Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whale population is substantially recovered to the point where it could potentially be delisted as endangered; 3) over-emphasis on charasmatic megafauna is deleterious to habitat protection and the recovery of other species.

NOAA provides an informative and accessible page on Purchasing, Finding or Possessing Marine Mammal Skins, Muktuk, Baleen, and Bones  This page states, in part, “Baleen (normally this is from the endangered bowhead whale) may be legally sold by Alaska Natives as Traditional Native Handicraft under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). The baleen must be cleaned and polished to qualify as handicraft. Once purchased, bowhead baleen may be transported out of State, but may not be subsequently sold or taken outside of the United States.”  While in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2012, I took some photos of baleen available in a shop and contacted the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Office in Juneau to confirm that the baleen had been cleaned and polished and also was legally sold.  Baleen that is legal to sell has been polished to a smooth texture and black color.  “Raw” baleen that is not legal to sell is often a lighter, grayer color and is dull in appearance.  According to NOAA, polishing baleen constitutes “significantly altered” and allows it to be sold as a native handicraft.   I encourage anyone who has concerns about baleen that is for sale to contact the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Office (

Bowhead whale hunting, and selling traditional native handicrafts made from baleen, supports an important part of the cultural and social traditions of Alaskan native tribes.  The webpage for the Inupiat people of Point Hope, Alaska (Tikigaq people) specifically addresses Inupiat whale hunting:  “Eskimos have hunted whales for centuries. F or at least 2,000 years, the cultural and social structure of northern whaling villages have centered around the annual hunt.  Often times, landing a whale is the most important community event of the year” ( There is a lot of information available in journal articles and online about the cultural importance of whaling in Alaskan native cultures (Creason, 2004; Sepez, 2002; Sandlos, 2001) and the rights of Alaskan natives to hunt for bowhead and other whale species.  In her book Baleen Basketry of the North Alaskan Eskimo (1998), Molly Lee discusses how important creating baleen handicrafts for the tourist trade is in continuing the practice of traditional handicrafts, and providing Barrow/Tikigaq inhabitants a local alternative to wage-work on the trans-Alaskan pipeline.  Selling the baleen to tourists provides an additional modern “use” for whale baleen that helps to support Alaskan native traditions and ancestral lands. No whales in the U.S. are being hunted to specifically provide bowhead whale baleen, nor any other commercial whale products, and all whale populations in U.S. territorial waters continue to be regulated and protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Commercial whaling over three centuries critically jeopardized global whale populations.  The Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other laws and regulations, protect populations and habitats to support the recovery of whale populations.  These laws have already had a noticeable effect on some whale species, specifically the E. North Pacific grey whale, which was delisted from the endangered species list in 1994 and is considered to be recovered (   Recent scientific studies have shown that the population of Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whales has now recovered to a level where this species may also be eligible to be delisted (Gerber, 2007; George, 2004; Shelden, 2001; Rooney, 2001).  Even though bowhead whales are still listed, this specific population has recovered with sufficient genetic diversity that they could be delisted and not considered an endangered species.  Purchasing baleen from Alaskan native-hunted whales from this population is not jeopardizing the continued existence of this whale species.  This is not to say all whale species are recovering, in fact the largest cause of mortality for many critically endangered whale species are ship strikes from cargo ships (Kraus, 2005; Jensen, 2003).  Importing plastic boning from China or Germany may have larger cumulative impacts to critically endangered whale populations, both in ship strikes and climate change emissions, than any amount of Alaskan native hunting could ever have.

And now a rant about the overemphasis on whales, and other cute critters (or “charismatic megafauna”) amongst the general public, and how that affects conservation and endangered species. Public opinions about which animals are worth saving have resulted in disproportionate efforts in conserving certain cuddly and large endangered species at the expense of others.  For instance, everyone knows whales are endangered, but despite ongoing education efforts by public agencies and non-profits, many people do not know about the many critically endangered species that we blithely impact every day with our normal lives.  The San Francisco Bay Area has at least 30 animal species that are currently on the federal endangered species list, and there are even more on the California state endangered species list. The populations and critical habitats of these animals are constantly at risk from ongoing development, carbon emissions, and water usage that enables us to live our comfortable lives importing fabric from across the globe and traveling to see the next fantastic museum exhibit.  The disproportionate emphasis on whales, such that they prompt impassioned defenses on costuming blogs, while species in our own backyards go extinct, is absolutely infuriating to me.  While the focus on whales and other cuddly critters was necessary for passing landmark environmental laws, it has become problematic in allocating resources for habitat conservation, and in getting the general public to understand the other major issues in saving species, such as habitat fragmentation and biodiversity (Mace, 2007; Barney, 2005; Walpole, 2002).  This also prevents these other issues from gaining the monetary backing and very important legal protection that could save other critically endangered habitats and species.

It is clear that it is legal to purchase cleaned and polished bowhead whale baleen from Alaskan natives.  Further, I contend that purchase of this baleen is ethical, both because it supports the continuing cultural tradition of Alaskan native whale hunting, and because the population of Bering/Chukchi/Beaufort seas (northern Pacific Ocean) bowhead whales is recovered to a sustainable level for appropriate levels of hunting. Focusing our conservation efforts, and internet ire, on charismatic species, like whales, disregards the complexities of conserving habitats and diverts money and resources from the vast majority of less photogenic, but still endangered species.

And a whole bunch of References (all easily available through Google Scholar or your local public library):


Creason, Anne M. Culture Clash: The Influence of Indigenous Cultures on the International Whaling Regime. 35 Cal. W. Int’l L.J. 83 (2004-2005)

Jennifer Sepez. Treaty Rights and the Right to Culture Native American Subsistence Issues in US Law (2002). Cultural Dynamics. vol. 14 no. 2 143-159

John Sandlos. From the Outside Looking in: Aesthetics, Politics, and Wildlife Conservation in the Canadian North. Environmental History.Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 6-31


Bowhead Populations

L.R. Gerber, A.C. Keller, D.P. DeMaster (2007), Ten thousand and increasing: Is the western Arctic population of bowhead whale endangered?. Biological Conservation. Volume 137, Issue 4,Pages 577-583

Shelden, K. E. W., Demaster, D. P., Rugh, D. J. and Olson, A. M. (2001), Developing Classification Criteria under the U.S. Endangered Species Act: Bowhead Whales as a Case Study. Conservation Biology, 15: 1300–1307.

George, J. C. , Zeh, J., Suydam, R. and Clark, C. (2004), ABUNDANCE AND POPULATION TREND (1978-2001) OF WESTERN ARCTIC BOWHEAD WHALES SURVEYED NEAR BARROW, ALASKA. Marine Mammal Science, 20: 755–773.



Ship Strikes

Scott D. Kraus, et al. (2005) North Atlantic Right Whales in Crisis. Science 22: 309 (5734), 561-562

Jensen, A.S. and G.K. Silber. (2003) Large Whale Ship Strike Database. U.S. Department of

Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS-OPR- , 37 pp.


Charismatic Megafauna

Mace, G. M.,Possingham, H. P.,Leader-Williams, N. (2007) Prioritizing choices in conservation. Topics in Conservation.

Erin C. Barney, Joel J. Mintzes, Chiung-Fen Yen (2005). Assessing Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior Toward Charismatic Megafauna: The Case of Dolphins The Journal of Environmental Education. Vol. 36, Iss. 2

Matthew J. Walpole and Nigel Leader-Williams (2002).Tourism and flagship species in conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation. Volume 11, Number 3, 54

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  • Reply Elizabeth January 8, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Fascinating, solid information, but I think I’d still feel wrong wearing baleen.

  • Reply Sarah Lorraine January 8, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    Wow, Sahyre, that’s a great essay. So much of the argument for/against using baleen in costuming (ie. a largely Caucasian and affluent hobby, let’s face it) seems like White Person Guilt to me. Now, that’s not inherently bad, but it doesn’t actually make a good argument for or against using it. There’s a lot of anger on both sides of the baleen-in-costuming issue, mostly coming from the reaction of individuals who believe utterly and sincerely that using it is gross and wrong and contributes to the depletion of an “endangered” species, as you’ve noted. The opposite argument is that it’s ethically sourced, by Native peoples who have the right to resell product obtained from their ancestral right to hunt whales, often comes across as tokenism. The lame “…and I’m 1/32nd Native American, therefore it’s ok” addendum that I’ve seen thrown out as a personal justification is also eye-rollingly offensive on so many levels I can’t even begin to list them.

    I’ve largely shied away from this controvesy because 1) as a white, affluent American woman, my opinion on Native Peoples rights is largely moot either way; and 2) I feel like my personal ambivalence on the issue doesn’t add to the discourse any more than vehemently taking a stance one way or the other. Would *I* use baleen? Maybe. I don’t know. I’m curious about it, I want to know what it’s like to work with, but I don’t know if it’s worth the backlash from my peer group.

  • Reply Jen Thompson January 8, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Thank-you so much for posting this! I thought the project using baleen for reconstructed stays was totally fascinating, and I was really sad to see the negative reactions that some costumers had to what she was doing. I know that this guest post might not change everybody’s opinion about using legally harvested baleen, but it’s wonderful to hear the other side of the argument presented from somebody who is knowledgeable about the issue.

    Bravo to you, Kendra, for sharing this with us all, and thank-you Sahrye for all the great information about this topic!

  • Reply Merja January 8, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Thank you Sahrye and Kendra. It’s very interesting to hear a marine biologist’s opinion on this.

    I first came to this topic as concerned. Not for the few individual experiments I was aware of, that’s perfectly fine in my opinion, but about the prospect of the material becoming globally desired through praising publicity and the resulting rising demand creating (illegal) supply, which was build up by a personal experience of being offered illegal baleen once just because I’m a costumer. But I shortly came in to conclusion that I don’t know enough of the matter to really have an opinion yet. And I’m certainly not wise enough to judge anybody’s personal choice to be opposed to or defend the use. I still think I’m personally more comfortable with my cane and I hope the people taking advantage of possible rising interest in baleen illegally aren’t going to succeed. But other than that I’m most comfortable following the conversation from the sidelines.

  • Reply Meilin January 8, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Wow. Very cool and eye-opening Sahrye. Thank you! I stand informed. I’ve wondered about the non-cuddly endangered species before, specifically whether the abundant publicity about the cuddly ones causes cynics to dismiss the whole preservation effort. Time to go research the non-cuddly ones you mentioned.

    NOAA: Once purchased, bowhead baleen may be transported out of State, but may not be subsequently sold or taken outside of the United States.

    I also have to wonder whether authorities would jump up and down if reenactors made, say, a baleen corset and wore said outfit to an event in France.

    Thanks a lot also to Kendra for the cross post!

  • Reply Saraquill January 8, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    I remember reading that when staymakers argued against allowing women into their guilds, one reason given was how much of a pain it was to cut baleen into proper uniform strips for boning. I’m not curious enough about baleen to want to try cutting it.

  • Reply Sahrye January 8, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Hi Everyone, thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on this topic, it is rare that my professional life and hobby intersect. It is not my intention to dictate to anyone how they should personal feel or whether they should use baleen in their costuming.

    A few thoughts based on some of the comments.

    I think that it is important for people from the dominant culture to realize their degree of privilege and to be aware of how their words and actions impact minority groups. I specifically included information about the legality and ethics of Alaskan native harvested baleen because some online comments have stated that it is not legal for Alaskan natives to sell baleen in the U.S. and that is incorrect. My thoughts about the ethics related to baleen are my personal feelings and I am not in any way trying to speak for anyone who is Native American. I think that when discussing baleen in this context it is important to remember that there are important cultural reasons why some Alaskan natives hunt whales. It is also relevant to consider the various treaty rights that support this activity and the economic effects of whale hunting on communities.

    I absolutely encourage everyone to report any suspected illegal baleen (or any animal product) you may see or be offered. Every U.S. resource or regulatory agency (Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, USACE, EPA, state waterboards, etc.) has people who specifically investigate and enforce the laws and regulations. Many of the enforcement cases I’ve worked on have been because a member of the public reports alleged violations to my office. Even if it is a short email or phone call, the information you provide may help. In most cases searching online for the item and “enforcement”, “illegal” or “compliance” will help you find the right office.

    I like lemurs as much as the next person, but I’m glad that there seems to be more discussion in public education campaigns about ecosystems and the many other important critters that live in them. I think there has been a lot of improvement in this area.

  • Reply Isis January 9, 2013 at 4:19 am

    Interesting read though a bit of a moot point for me as I’m Swedish and don’t have any baleen source whatsoever, legal or not. I would though, really like to try it and if I could find it ethically harvested. After all, apart from legal hunting there ought to be able to harvest baleen from whales that get stranded and found dead.

    Interesting and not at all moot is the fact that “cuddly” animals are easier to get funding for. I recently read a Swedish article on endangered bug that lamented it as well.

  • Reply Trystan January 9, 2013 at 10:17 am

    Always good to have more info. However, I still don’t find using baleen for costume recreation to be particularly recommendable. For a few specific museum/teaching projects? Sure, that seems fine. But for general hobbyist costumer use? Nope. That way lies madness.

    a) The baleen used for stay-making isn’t exactly the same as ‘native handicrafts.’ Alaskan native tribes don’t have a long-standing history of carving busks & stays. Hobbyist costumers using their baleen products does not support & encourage *their* cultural traditions. If anything, we white westerners are taking advantage of their lower status & need for income. Rather patronizing, imo. I’d prefer to buy items that reflect their heritage & lifestyle instead.

    b) Having researched & written extensively in the environmental sphere, I’m familiar with the ‘charismatic megafauna’ criticism. But I think that’s a red herring here. Fashion has a long, sordid history of environmental destruction, & while I love historical reenactment, I don’t think that’s an area we really need to recreate. We live in the 21st century & have access to a wide variety of less harmful substitutes.
    We use simulated ivory instead of encouraging elephant poaching. We use faux furs instead of killing rare animals. We use painted feathers instead of plucking them from exotic birds. Even coral is endangered, & responsible jewelers use attractive substitutes (I had a great conversation about this at 12th night w/an SCA jeweler who made a beautiful recreation of a historical coral rosary in faux beads). We have a responsibility to protect our limited resources.

    If every costumer who thought, hey, I want to be historically accurate, it’s *technically* legal, I’m going to use baleen for my next corset, if they did that, well, what’s the impact? Would there be a run on baleen? Would people start smuggling it outside the U.S.? Would Alaskan natives increase their harvest? And after baleen, what’s next? Ivory, fur, exotic feathers, coral, etc., etc.? Where do you draw the line?

    I just don’t see the need for hobbyist costumers to use these types of materials.

  • Reply Sarah Lorraine January 9, 2013 at 11:50 am

    If every costumer who thought, hey, I want to be historically accurate, it’s *technically* legal, I’m going to use baleen for my next corset, if they did that, well, what’s the impact? Would there be a run on baleen? Would people start smuggling it outside the U.S.? Would Alaskan natives increase their harvest? And after baleen, what’s next? Ivory, fur, exotic feathers, coral, etc., etc.? Where do you draw the line?

    I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that no, even if everyone in the costuming world made a baleen corset, I seriously doubt it would impact the economics of whale hunting, or create a demand that would prove to unsustainable to current regulations. We are not a very large community. Now, if Victoria’s Secret decided it wanted to put baleen in their underwire bras, dude, yes, that’s really worrisome.

    I think that for the serious hobbyist who wants to get REALLY into their reenactment, baleen use is a very niche interest. It’s tough to get (I have tried, to be honest, and never succeeded. The handful of Alaskan sources that legally sell it do not answer requests from out of state interested parties. It’s very much one of those things you have to go in person to obtain, or have someone go for you), it’s awful to prep, and it sucks to sew. For a community that, by and large, would prefer cheap and easy alternatives nine times out of ten, I don’t see 0.09% of the costuming population creating a demand large enough to impact ecological regulations.

    But, I know you have a very strong personal preference against baleen use, so I’m not trying to start a big battle with you, T. Just saying that I don’t think the argument that we could create a negative impact on whale conservation is all that pressing.

  • Reply Trystan January 9, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    While some species have recovered recently, it doesn’t take a lot to upset the natural balance. And the greater point is, why should baleen be ok but not ivory or other endangered & scarce natural resources? Why do we *need* to use these things in a hobby? I don’t get it.

    And if using baleen is such a bother, why promote the possibility of using it at all? Why not just leave it in the past, along with a plethora of things that we’ve since learned are harmful to our natural environment (or ourselves – if baleen is so great, why not go for lead in white makeup too? just as historically accurate)?

  • Reply Merja January 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    Trystan, I think the need is most often justified by being done for research purposes or it being superior to other materials by giving the right look, being the most comfortable and durable and the want to achieve the most historically accurate garment as possible.

    (I’m sorry for getting chatty, but I find this discussion very fascinating. I hope the following long personal account isn’t out of place, and if it is, I fully understand if it gets removed.)

    What comes to the research aspect, to me personally it’s enough that there has been a few modern research experiments with baleen, there is up to date information available that it works perfectly and pretty much like I had expected. And now that the research has been done well by people doing it for a living, I don’t think I would have anything new to offer to the research by my own experiments. And no matter how much the material, being the number one boning material for all the eras I’m interested in, and it’s qualities and the research in general interests me, I can’t find a justification to why I would have to be one of the people getting to experience it first hand. (Theoretically speaking, as it is not a choice for us Europeans.) There is research and I trust it and that’s enough for me. But I really want to underline that I don’t mean everyone should feel the same way. It’s just how I feel about me in relation to the baleen research.

    What comes to the right look, I’m also very happy that I have been given the opportunity to see pictures of baleen boned stays on a living person and, although the stays looked flawless, I don’t think I would be able to tell baleen boned stays from stays boned with the best working available substitute materials. I think you can make a bigger difference in the authenticity of the look with a working pattern and execution than the choice of boning material. Again, just my personal opinion. I understand that there are others that don’t share my view.

    I can’t really say about the comfort and durability but what I’ve heard and that would be strongly in favor of baleen. But, apart from spring steel that in my experience can feel very painful in 18th century stays, I think that wrong shape, wearing them too tight, overeating in them or not being accustomed to the compression are the main reasons for discomfort and in many cases boning material hasn’t been a major contributor to discomfort. And not every 18th century lady praised her baleen boned stays as being comfortable. Especially the most fashionable ones. There is the durability issue of course, but then there is the German plastic boning (that I haven’t tried yet) that could be even more durable than baleen. After all, baleen can snap too eventually even if it doesn’t happen very easily.

    I can relate best to the want to achieve as accurate stays as possible, but I comfort myself that none of the fabrics I use are hand woven, the dyes aren’t natural, the tread isn’t hand spun, the weight and quality of fabric is different etc. and suddenly it’s not such an issue for me anymore. :)

    So in conclusion I’m happy that there has been valid research in the 21st century and I’m grateful that it’s been made available to those interested so that I have been able to gain better understanding of the material. But on top of not personally feeling comfortable using anything endangered (even if the the species is recovering) in my hobby and wouldn’t feel happy if it were suddenly be build up as the most desirable boning material that everyone should get, I have persuaded myself out of any desire or need to work with baleen myself (even if it were possibility). I don’t know anything about the living conditions of Inuits or the whole environmental affects of using baleen vs. using German plastic, zip ties or cane so I’m interested in learning more and hearing other views, so I feel this discussion has been great.

  • Reply MaryD January 10, 2013 at 12:32 am

    I really appreciate this article and all the nuances that go into it. I’ve felt long torn by this issue–in part because I bought legal baleen many years before this controversy exploded in the costume blogosphere. My husband is a climber and has traveled to remote Alaskan locations. He has seen first-hand the intense poverty and cultural challenges faced by tribal population. His visits left him with an appreciation for the role whaling has for their culture (which, ironically, does not value baleen). Later, I was shown a set of (modern-made) baleen stays and became interested in the historic material. At that point, I’d taught stay-making classes and I really wanted to explore using the genuine historic material. After a bit of inquiry to the Alaskan state government, I received a list of Native American fisherman with legal whaling licenses. I contacted a fisherman who sold me a fin directly (note–this was ages ago, when laws were different and there was no obligation for transforming it into native art).

    For anyone who chooses to buy this, I do have some warnings–aside from the common environmental considerations.

    First of all, I would recommend seriously considering the emotional reaction that owning baleen can provoke. Perhaps it was stupid minded insensitivity on my part, but I was really caught off guard by this–heck, I thought that being a vegetarian, taking special precautions to ensure that I bought ethically and the overall impact on cultural survival would offset bad impressions. I was dead wrong on that. I was really devastated to lose friendships over it (really, I’m a nice person, even if I do buy stupid crap once in a while). As a result, I’ve never used the fin for anything and generally keep it hidden (other than loaning it to a local museum as a display piece). Needless to say, when the blogosphere exploded over this, I kept mum.

    The other thing is that ownership of baleen can become a real burden. As a non-Alaskan native, I cannot sell it or gift it–or even legally throw it away. It’s rather an albatross. Even if I do eventually use it for stays–I still must keep it.

    None of this detracts from Sahrye’s points–but I do think if anyone decides to buy it, these are points well worth considering. I wish I did.

    For those who want to find an alternative to baleen, I have to say that I find the common materials (zip ties, german plastic boning, reeds) to be inadequate substitutes. Once I handled the real thing, I realized that none of these comes close–in part because they do not fit tightly in the channels, none have the same kind of flexibility, the plastic cannot be steamed into shape (without melting) and all tend to poke out & break, which period boning did not. The only viable (and correct to period) substitute I’ve found is truly labor intensive (just like baleen!): custom whittling green oak or willow to fit in each channel (and might I add, the difficulty of binding over wood prolongs the epic). However, while oak will mold like baleen, it is a little bit stiffer. That said, I do make and wear reed stays (sadly, I don’t fit my lovely oak stays)–but I do so mindful that it’s a rather farby shortcut (Asian reeds were not available for period stays, they are too bendy and they slide and break in the channels).

    Interesting article–and I really appreciate the respect reflected in these comments. Thanks!

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