Wow, what a weekend!
In the continuing saga of Indian Skills classes, this weekend I took a tanning class. It was inCREDible! I'll start from the beginning, while it's still fresh.
The instructors were Tamara [said like "tomorrow"] Wilder and Steven Edholm. Tamara wore a lovely buckskin sleeveless shirt on Saturday. Steven had blonde/brown dreadlocks to half-way down his upper arm -- the definitive hippy types. I felt utterly at home, and they even made me homesick for my drum-making friends in the Blue Ridge mountains of Asheville NC...
They had been tanning hides for over 9 years together. They tanned hides for a *living* for almost 6 years, selling each hide for ~$95-$150, which was close to minimum wage for hard labor. Yikes! They lived very simply during that time, existing on primitive skills, living in the deep woods of Santa Cruz carrying water and cooking over a campfire.
They got hides by offering hunters to skin their deer. Steven said most hunters are not even interested in dealing with the dear at all, and will merely drop it off at a butcher for processing and hardly touch it! They can also get the hides already skinned, but they prefer to skin them so there aren't any nicks, holes or a lot of flesh left on them.
The 5 hides we worked on this weekend were over a year old. They'd skinned them, then applied salt and let them dry enough to fold them and store them. [You can also freeze them, but the electric bill is *very* expensive!] For the class, they washed the salt off carefully, then soaked the hides from Wednesday night until Saturday morning, when we started.
Hides which had soaked for two days get a tad stinky. Tamara said this was fine, that they were still "septic". When the hides are dangerous, you can really tell, and shouldn't even handle them if possible -- dispose of them in a deep hole with some vegetable matter to help them decompose.
So we got started right away! First, was to scrape any flesh and fat off the flesh side of the hides. We put on aprons, and used some handmade tools, which were made from old planning blades, dulled so they scraped instead of cut. Some tools were made of bone, but I didn't get a chance to see what that felt like. They have to be sharpened more often, but can easily be sharpened from a flake of stone.
The skins were placed over a beam, which was carefully planed into a rounded smooth surface. I don't remember which woods they preferred for their beams, but it's important to have wood which is soft enough to give a little under the tools. The beams were propped up two different ways. The ones I used were mainly propped up on one end so it was at your belly and the other end went into the ground at about 30 degrees. The skin went over the end you leaned against with your belly [so you held the skin on the beam], and scraping was away from you, downward along the beam. The other method was to place the beam against a tree upright and scrape downward. This was a little harder because it was harder to throw your weight into it. But I've seen pictures of Native American women scraping hides this way.
It took us most of the morning to scrape the flesh off. Most of us were delicate with the hides, afraid to rip them. As time went on, we got less afraid and slowly realized that deer skin is pretty damn durable!
Because there was so much do to and we'd gotten a late start, we didn't really break for lunch. People wandered off to eat, but work continued throughout the whole day.
Next, was a rinsing, then scraping off the hair on the hair side. Because we were making suede, we had to also scrape off the "grain", which is the layer of epidermis -- basically the layer of dead/dying skin which protects you, and which contains the hair follicle. If we left this on, the leather would be shiny, like boot leather, and it wouldn't be as spongy and stretchy like suede.
Once the grain was scraped away, it was rinsed again and turned over *again* to the flesh side to have the membrane scraped off. This layer didn't come off when scraping off the flesh because the hair made the skin squishy and which makes it harder to scrape this layer off. Now that the hair was gone, this layer was much easier to scrape off.
"Much easier" being relative terms. :)
I was really going to town, scraping off the membrane! I was really into it! I knew I was going to regret it the next day, but it was too much fun! This method of scraping was far, far easier to do then the freezing-cold, rainy scraping I did for the African drums I made three years ago, all by myself on my hands and knees with a single-edged razor blade, having no idea what I was doing at all. :)
From there, being almost dry, it went into the tanning solution. This is the gross part, so those who are of weak stomaches, beware! The tanning solution was made with five pounds of beef brains. Yes, brains. The brains were boiled and blended and mixed with hot water. You want the water hot enough to keep your hand in, so it doesn't scald the skins.
The brains contain the fatty acids lecithin and glycerine. These condition the skin much like hair conditioner. Steve said, "remember the little blobby things in the conditioner commercials floating around in the hair? That's what's going on here."
The skins needed to soak in the brains and have the solution worked into them, so we squished and pulled the skins so they soaked it up. At this point, you could gather a small edge together to make a mini balloon using the skin and air would even pass through -- the skin was getting soft!
The brains were actually not so bad. The solution smelled a lot like pate, but not as salty. It had a sweet, wet-dog kind of smell. Rather pleasant really. [But then again, I like liver and onions. :) ]
Out of the solution, then to wring it out. We rolled it into a donut, stuck two sticks in the hole, then twisted them against eachother like scissors or an "X" -- like a tourniquet. We made the donut by draping the hide over a stick, like you would a towel over a towel rack, but we left one side longer, then took the long end and draped it around and over again -- basically folding it into thirds to make a tube. Then we rolled the sides in, like you would roll socks down your leg, but from both ends of the sock. [I realize that this is hard to visualize...]
We really railed on it during the wringing part! If the hide were to rip, it would have during this part! It took two people together, and we turned it until it couldn't be turned anymore!
>From there, we took it out into the setting sun and worked the fibers. Four people together, we pulled the hide diagonally, back and forth. We also pulled individual places by hand, back and forth -- pull one way, then pull the opposite. The idea was to loosen the fibers [not break them] so they slipped along eachother. We worked in the sun until the light failed. Then we put them back into the solution and wearily hiked back down the path to our cars.
I have never been so tired as that evening. I had a hard time *driving* my car! The same muscles we used to scrape were the same muscles I use to turn the steering wheel. I drove an hour home and collapsed into bed, and dreaded waking up at 7:30am to be in by 9...
I have never been so sore in my *life*! My arms ached so much that I had a hard time sleeping. I'd lay my arms still and they'd *ache*, then the pain would subside a little bit, but if I rolled over, they *ached* again! I eventually got up and took some vit E, and that helped a lot. [In the morning, my arms hurt hardly at all. They were exhausted, but didn't hurt.]
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment!
[Including softening and smoking the hides...]
More about Steve and Tamara