“Some men hunt for sport, others hunt for food. The only thing I’m hunting for, is an outfit that looks good! See my vest! See my vest! Made from real gorilla chest! See this sweater? There’s no better, than authentic Irish setter!... Like my loafers, former gophers…”-Mr. Burns, The Simpsons
What’s more hillbilly than eating squirrel? I suppose tanning squirrel pelts could qualify! My friend Naomi wanted to learn traditional hide tanning and as I have had a bit of experience with this technique and know how difficult it can be, I suggested we start small…really small! Luckily my waste-not-want-not forager mentality drove me to freeze a few squirrel pelts from earlier in the season, so we had plenty of materials to work with.
Hide tanning is one of the oldest hominid traditions and (in my opinion) art forms. As soon as our early ancestors started hunting, and perhaps even while still scavenging, they found uses for animal hides. If simply scraped and left to dry, animal skins are transformed into tough and resilient rawhide. This prized material has been used by cultures throughout the world for millennia for a variety of purposes from foot wear to ornate parfletch bags. At some point some brilliant ancestor realized that the application of animal brain or egg yolk coupled with vigorous stretching would produce a soft hide or fur that remained extremely flexible when dried. The genius ancestor or ancestors we have to thank for this technological innovation are unknown, but the tradition is still present. And this is the subject of today’s post.
The basic principles of fur tanning are simple. The hide is made up of millions of fibers that want to align and dry as stiff as a board (rawhide). By coating with mashed animal brain or egg yolk, the fibers are coated with oils. By agitating and stretching throughout the drying process, each fiber is coated with oil and cannot adhere to neighboring fibers. The result is a dry, soft and flexible fur. Next, the hide must be smoked for at least ½ hour to preserve the skin (helps keep away moths and mold). The beauty of a traditionally tanned fur is incomparable. And it is 100% organic. You could take your shirt off, throw it on the ground, and if it were to rot on the spot, flowers or berry bushes could grow out of it with no risk from harmful chemicals!
We started out scraping free the membrane layers with a hafted Altamira shale biface.
Next we applied egg yolk and laced it into a frame to begin stretching the skin.
Once dried (and very flexible) we sanded the remaining membrane from the hide with abrasive sandstone. This left the skin very smooth.
Finally we smoked the hide over a black walnut and sage fire.
This was a good and educational Saturday.
Interested in learning to tan furs yourself?
Check this out! http://www.braintan.com/articles/furs/miller1.html
Keep the old ways alive!