We made some of our own presents this year. This was possibly unwise as neither of us could be described as artistic or skilled at craft. Rudimentary knitting is as far as we get, and the results of our endeavours with wool and needles would scarcely bring a smile to someone’s face over the festive season. However, as part of our endeavour to be self-sufficient, and due to our abomination of waste, we wanted to use the sheep skins of our lambs after slaughter. So we thought learning to tan hides would be a way to kill two birds with one stone.We would use the skins and have no need to buy Christmas presents as we could give rugs and jackets to our friends and family. This plan only half-worked. Therefore, if you decide to follow the instructions which follow, then stop half-way through.
The first stage of tanning is to salt the skins.
This means covering the whole area of the skin in a layer of salt about 0.5cm thick. Don’ try and do this with a salt cellar you are going to need about 1kg of salt per skin. Table salt or, if it is cheaper to buy, then dishwasher salt will suffice. This stage starts the preservation by drawing the moisture out of the skins as it drops on the floor. It is best to leave the skins for up to a week under the salt. Check them daily and renew the salt at any areas where pools of water have formed. The area you are working in will become wet and damp as the salt draws out all the water from the skin.
The following stage is scraping. You need sharp knives and any metal implements which
will allow you to scrape off any bits of meat of fat which are adhering to the skin. There are fleshing knives available at a cost, but kitchens knives, paint scrapers and a bee-hive tool work jus as well. This is very slow work but you have to persevere until a smooth, thin, white skin is all you have left. It should be about 1-2mm thick. Your hands will probably dry out during this process as the salt and the work will pull out all the natural oils in your skin. I found that, when I was doing this, if I went out in the rain, my hands looked as if they had been in a long hot bath as my finger tips went white and wrinkly very quickly.
The following stage is the actual tanning stage. You need to soak the skins in acid for a few days. There are many traditional
ways of getting an acid for this procedure. Originally the brains of the animal would be smeared on the skins for the syringomyelic acid they contained, and in the middle ages there was some poor unfortunate whose job was to collect dog poo (as dog poo and urine are slightly acidic) for the tanning process. We decided against these strategies and went for oxalic acid which is quite easy to obtain as it is a common cleaning preparation (often used as a decking cleaner). We sent up three bins and the skins went through these over the next weeks. The first 4 days in the acid solution, then a day in
a bicarbonate of soda wash (to neutralize the acid and start the cleaning) then a few days in a solution of soap flakes for simple cleaning. During each of these steps it is important to stir the mixture once or twice a day with a wooden stick.
Once you have completed these stages you are into the home run. The next stage is to dry the skins by hanging them on a line somewhere. Then daily pull and stretch the skins to make them pliable. This must be done multiple times and which considerable force and vigour as it breaks down the fibres in the leather and makes the leather supple.
This, I have to confess is where we
made our fatal mistake. While we dried the fleeces well and did try and bend and pull them, we did not do this adequately and when the skins finally dried the leather was too hard and rigid. It was tanned but not, by any stretch of the imagination, supple. This part of the job can’t be skimped unless you are going to be happy with wall hangings or rugs, where flexibility is less important.
This unfortunately did not deter us. We had set our mind on Christmas presents and were not going to be so flexible as to let some stiff leather put us off. After some deft work with leather thongs and a needle we constructed a jacket.
Now the leather outside is indeed waterproof, and the inner wool lining is very warm, but is does lack a little in finesse and fashion. It looks a little too Neolithic, or Game of Thrones, for day to day wear. I fear if we both wore matching jacked to the supermarket we might even be viewed as a little eccentric. But as proof of purpose it has shown it is possible to tan the skins and next year, after much more diligent work at the drying stage, we hope to have flexible, supple leather. Version 2 might even be wearable in public.