I think there are certain people who exude serendipity. I find myself going to see these people and ending up in a chain of positive connections and events that soon grow into completely new aspect of my life that I can then call my own. In this instance, I’m thinking of Paul Smith and Mary Lake.
Through them, I started working wilderness therapy, which essentially formed the path that I’m on right now. More specifically, Paul started me on wood carving, beer brewing, and hiking as much as possible. Mary has taught me more about sheep and wool than anyone else in the world. Plus, Crokinole.
The latest improvement by association came by way of their moving out party. Every guest at the party was required to take something form the free room, which was full of stuff that they knew they weren’t going to move with. I got a mug, a carboy, and a jar of peanut butter during the party. I was also fortunate enough to be there the day before to get one item in particular…
A lovely brown sheepskin. Well, let me clarify. A potentially lovely brown sheepskin. As gross as the picture looks, it was much worse in the beginning. I essentially got a trash bag with a fresh hide in it. Like, still warm (Mary is also a butcher). I had always wanted to go about prepping one of these things, so I jumped on the chance to take it back with me.
Now, I had done a deer hide before down in Kentucky, but I was just going to use that hide to make a drum, so it didn’t matter if the hair was on it or not. Thus, I just soaked the whole thing in lye and took the hair off, then let it dry in the sun. (Like so)
For this one, though, I wanted it to be both flexible and furry (like me! (gross)) so I knew I would have to revise my methods. After searching the internet for awhile, I learned one key thing about tanning hides: You’re going to have to pick your own method and stick with it. From the 20+ resources I looked over, I was able to find 20+ methods of tanning a sheepskin, each one unique in its process. Eggs, oil, acids, and brains were the most common methods. I chose brains because, well… because I know a butcher.
But let me start at the beginning. First, I needed to get all the moisture out of the hide. This was mostly to preserve the hide until I could get around to it, since it would eventually rot if I just left in in a pile in my garage. To do this, I placed the hide fur side down on a collapsible drying rack and covered the bare side in salt. The rack was to keep the fur from hanging onto moisture and the salt was to forcibly draw out any moisture and blood that was still in the skin. Looking back, I would have done a few things differently. First, the skin could have used a better scraping before I salted it. Even the most talented butcher usually leaves a few pieces of whatnot stuck to the hide, and these are best removed when the it’s fresh. I ended up having to scrape and tug and pull and rip what could have easily been taken off early on. Second, The laundry rack, while keeping the fur off the ground, didn’t let the hide dry in a uniform shape, which made for some unevenness later on.
After it was completely dried out (it was stiff as a board and technically rawhide at that point) I picked a warm day to start the tanning process. The whole point of this step is to loosen up the fibers in the flesh to make the end product soft and pliable. The tannins in any one of the formulas mentioned above work well at doing this. The other alternative is to
“break” the hide using your own power, which is like crumpling a piece of paper over and over again to make it soft. The problem with that method is that it takes hours and it will kill your hands. Just imagine giving the most intimidating of business handshakes about two thousand times in a row.
I opted for brains because I could get them and I was curious about what it would be like to work with them. The first step was blending the brains, which was pretty intense. It’s one thing to work with a piece of meat. Maybe it’s repetition or just that it’s clearly food, but I never really have a mercy reaction to carving a chicken. When I saw the brain in the blender, though, I started getting headaches as I imagined what it would be like to have that done to my brain. Maybe it was the sheep messing with me, but I kept telling myself that it’s better to use the whole animal.
After liberally applying the milkshake to the bare side, I folded it in half (flesh to flesh) and let the tannins do their work for the night. Now, when I got out to it the next morning, I could tell that changes were happening. The color of the skin was beginning to lighten and even turn transparent in some spots. One thing that wasn’t ready, though, was the overall condition of the hide. One, it was still pretty dirty. Two, it smelled like a sheep. Not like, “Oh, yea! It kinda does smell like a sheep if you get real close up to it!” More like, “Dude, are you lambing in here?” The brains certainly weren’t helping. At this point I just set the whole thing in the sun on a proper hide rack (they’re easy to make!) to try to get some of the smell off. There was another step of smoking the hide that might have done the trick, but I figured that I had the laid the brains on too thick and that I sort of needed to start over.
This actually worked out well, because there was still some more cleaning to be done. There were still bits of sticks and dirt and barnyard dandruff stuck in the fir, so I decided that I was going to wash the whole thing out and try to add more oil into the skin later on.
To clean up the flesh side first, though, I came across an interesting method that suggested using cornmeal and a stone to help clean the bits off that would just get stuck in a brush (think of brushing bread dough). After spending a bit of time with this method, it went from the above, to this:
The linty bits are parts that came up during the scraping and the yellow bits are pieces of cornmeal that will never be eaten by me. This didn’t really solve the smell, but it did save me a lot of hassle once water came into the picture.
Which was accompanied by a lot of dish soap. I used Seventh Generation because I didn’t want to have to worry about what was going to run off into my yard, plus a rug that smelled like Dawn would make me gag. All together, I washed and rinsed the fur three times, making sure to work the soap and water all the way down to the hide to get rid of anything that might be smelling. After rinsing, I scrubbed the flesh side with soap to get any bits of brains off that might have stayed behind. After all these washings, fur looked a lot nicer and smelled a lot cleaner, but the skin had taken on a bunch of water.
At this point, I started breaking rules and dedicated my sheepskin to being an experiment. Even though I had bunches of different resources for what to do next, I decided to just make things up. I knew that the blood had been drawn out and that all there was in the skin was clean water. If I got all of that out, then the hide would still be preserved, but it would become stiff again. To get around this issue, I partially dried the sheepskin by putting the whole thing in the dryer on the air dry setting (heat would have cooked it) and kept checking it every couple of minutes. After a good bit of the moisture was out, I laid it fur side down on another rack and rubbed some leather conditioner into it. My logic was that the conditioner would keep the hide flexible while the water dried out of it, which seems to have worked.
So, in reflection, the hide probably would have turned out a little softer and involved less work if I’d have followed just one process, but the experience did reassure me that as long as one understands the basics of what’s needed, it’s possible to end up with a usable rug. From now on, though, I’m going to make sure that everything I tan can be used as a blanket because that’s just awesome.