Northern Wilds Magazine
Close-up of the scraping technique to remove layers of the dermis, exposing the fiber network of the skin. | Julia Prinselaar
ArtsWild Traditions

The Slow, Satisfying Tanning Process

Before plant fibers were spun and woven into the mass-produced textiles of today, tanning animal skins and pelts for clothing was a common practice among civilizations across the globe. Wearing leather and furs was a necessary element of survival. They kept our vulnerable human bodies shaded from the sun and shielded from the harshness of wind, rain and colder climates. They were also used for purposes of magic, spirituality, decoration and prestige that expressed social significance and culture.

As hunters and gatherers before European contact, the Ojibwe people of this region wore clothing made of tanned deer hide. Tepees made from saplings and animal skins were an ideal form of shelter in all seasons, offering shade in the summer and solace from wind and snow in winter.

 Close-up of the scraping technique to remove layers of the dermis, exposing the fiber network of the skin. | Julia Prinselaar

Close-up of the scraping technique to remove layers of the dermis, exposing the fiber network of the skin. | Julia Prinselaar

In a lot of ways, the practice of hide tanning led my foray into the pursuit of traditional crafts. A number of years ago, I attended a primitive skills gathering on Vancouver Island. I arrived a day late and registration for the deer hide tanning workshop was already full. But I watched intently as others in the class scraped the hides on a fleshing beam, stretched them on a rack and smoked the softened skins over a funnel of hot coals. I was determined to learn more so I’ve since experimented with traditional forms of tanning.

Luckily, acquiring ethically-sourced deer hides in Northwestern Ontario isn’t a difficult thing to do—even if you don’t hunt. Most hunters have no use for the skin, and many are happy to give it to someone who does. The best hides aren’t necessarily the biggest hides. Ones that are fresh, well-skinned and contain minimal holes or knife scores are the most pleasant to work with and yield the best results.

There are a number of ways to tan an animal skin, from using traditional methods like animal brains, to using oil, eggs, bark and commercial tanning kits. If the hair is coming off—such as making buckskin for clothing or rawhide for drum skins—it is much easier to manipulate the skin by hand using simple tools.

Making garment-quality furs is more of a challenge; one has to be sensitive to the nature of fur. The animal should be skinned, its hide fleshed (removed of all fat and meat) and worked as soon as possible in order to prevent decay and fur loss. Scraping against the grain of the fur could also loosen follicles and compromise the pelt’s quality. Depending on how the fur will be used, chemical tanning kits are available that will help preserve the fur and add softness to its underside.

Regardless of what materials are used to tan, certain tools are essential to the process. A fleshing beam made from a log or plastic beam supported on a stand, allows the tanner to lean over the skin and apply direct pressure to scrape the fat, meat and eventually further layers of skin from the hide when making buckskin. Scrapers are typically made from a beveled metal edge, but traditionally the rib of a moose or large animal was used. The trick is to scrape certain layers from the hide in order to isolate the fiber network—the material that can be treated, stretched and smoked into the revered softness of buckskin.

Fleshing, graining and removing the membrane all involve the use of a fleshing beam for the wet-scrape method. Alternatively the hide can be stretched on a rack and scraped with a beveled hand tool. After scraping, the hide is rinsed, wrung out and would traditionally be left to soak in animal brains. It is said that an animal’s head contains enough brains to tan its own hide. The hide is then wrung out once more, racked and worked with the blunt end of a pole to stretch the fibers as they dry. Alternatively—and in my experience—getting a group of friends together to stretch the hide on a sunny afternoon can be a lot more fun. It’s also fascinating to see a damp, wrinkled skin transform into soft, wearable fabric.

Handmade buckskin guitar strap with dyed cow hide finish. |Julia Prinselaar
Handmade buckskin guitar strap with dyed cow hide finish. |Julia Prinselaar

The final step is to carefully smoke the hide over a pit of coals, effectively preserving the hide to be water resistant. Any unsmoked skin that becomes wet and dries without working the fibers will become stiff and feel calloused.

While there is no longer a practical need to spend hours and days laboriously scraping, stretching and softening animal skins, this skill has offered a sense of connection to our survival as a species in a way that is difficult to replicate. The last century has been experiencing a drastic evolution of textiles. Plastics woven into fleece and polyester allow outdoor gear the ability to perform in the elements—much like skins and furs would offer breathability and insulation. Wool is a tried and true example of this. But plastic textiles and other synthetic materials are finding their way into our lakes and waterways in the form of tiny microfibers that abrade every time they are washed. Many of these fibers are so small that they are not captured in wastewater treatment plants, and leading scientific research has detected the presence of microplastics in the surface water of all five Great Lakes.

While the world appears to be hooked on the convenience and versatility of plastic, processing natural materials for clothing, furniture, shoes and consumer goods continues today. Any widely-produced material calls into question the ethics of industrial scale production. But fundamentally, organic materials were harvested from their immediate surroundings because they were useful and practical. Remnants of that wisdom remains today.

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