Buckskin was once considered the ideal hunter’s garb, the idea being that if deer grew their hides to endure a life of wear in the wilderness, then clothing made from such skins would be superior to anything man-made. Buckskin is durable and also flexible, waterproof, comfortable and wind-resistant. What’s more, it makes use of a part of hunted and slain animals that is often left to rot: their skins.
Though some parts of the process are physically taxing, tanning skins can be done at home with a few simple and basic tools. The resulting material will be easy to sew and turn into a wide range of apparel, including shirts, leggings, hats and moccasins. Raw skin, when untreated, will either rot or else dry and become stiff and unusable. The goal of tanning is to make these skins both dry and soft.
The first step involves removing the layers of skin above the strong, interwoven fibers of buckskin. Dull-edged tools (preferably of steel) are used to scrape off meat, fat, hair, epidermis and grain – without cutting into the layer beneath. Grain removal is more easily accomplished if hides are soaked first in a solution formed of 2-3 gallons of wood ashes mixed with water, which makes hides swell. This alkaline soak typically takes three days, and will make the grain layer more visible and easier to remove.
When scraping has been completed, the inside of the hide is thoroughly rinsed to cleanse it of mucus and any clinging debris. Placing it in a stream or pond overnight can accomplish this task. Once the skin has been rinsed it must be wrung of all excess water. Then, to prevent it from hardening into rawhide, it is soaked in emulsified oils.
As the newly treated hide dries, we begin the most physical and time-consuming work: stretching. This is also referred to as softening. Hide is continually moved and stretched so that the sheet of skin doesn’t harden as it dries. We remove the creases that were created when it was wrung, and then proceed to pull from each side, all the way up and down. This can be done with the skin between our hands, over our knees, from a hanging position, and various other ways. Buckskin will remain softer and more flexible if it is then smoked. Smoking also colors the hide (hence the term “tanning”) and alters its fibers so that it can be washed without affecting its texture.
The tanner’s art can take a lot of practice to master. Mentoring under an experienced tanner can help us to learn each of the steps more thoroughly. For those of us who want to make high-quality clothing in a very environmentally conscious way, the effort will be well worth it.