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UncommonCate

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Primitive Technology

Mouse Hide Amulet Bag

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Mice have delightfully soft fur. They are also prolific, easy to catch, and easy to skin. The first time I ever even heard of mouse use for hides was last summer at the Echoes in Time skills gathering. One of the basket girls had a tiny mouse hide bag. I thought it was a wonderfully creative and adorable idea, and, being a maker, I wanted to try making one myself. Mouse hides are the perfect size for amulet bags.

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The first part was the mouse hides. Mice are generally trapped anyway because they are often a nuisance, so instead of disposing of the mice from the traps as usual, I threw them in a bag in the freezer. When I had a few I decided to try skinning them. It was much easier than I thought it would be. I thawed them just enough, so that the innards were still mostly solid, but the skin was supple. The skins are very thin and therefore delicate, but they peel right off. The most difficult part was figuring out where to cut the ears and the lips to get the face off intact. I discovered that a cut right under the ears will bring them off nicely, and a pre-cut along the edges of the mouth makes the whole face much easier to deal with. It took me three tries to get a good one with the whole face and no holes (the one pictured).

I then soaked the hides in Earl Grey tea for a few days. Tea contains tannic acid which treats the hide and because the hides were so small, it was much easier to use tea than bark. This is essentially bark tanning. I do not know much about bark tanning, but I find braintan.com‘s section on bark tanning very informative. It’s a highly interesting process. I then rubbed oil (walnut oil mixed with beeswax to be exact because that’s what I had at the time) to soften the hide.

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To make the bag, I folded the back end of the hide up to the ears and whip stitched the sides closed. I then sewed a piece of buckskin lace under the fold of the flap (on the backside of the ears). To make the fold nice, I left the bag with the flap folded down under a book for a while.

“Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” – Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit From St. Nicolas

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Yucca Fiber Skirt

Yucca fiber processing is an ancient art. I first became interested in yucca fiber in my time at The Clovis Site (an important archaeological site on the high plains of New Mexico). People have used yucca for ages past in every form. From raw leaves, to finely spun yucca yarn, the leaves have been used in every form. The book Treading in the Past: Sandals of the Anasazi showcases many excellent examples of yucca fiber in all forms as used in sandals. Yucca is also used for cordage, bags, nets, and really anything fiber related.

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I start by chopping down a yucca plant. I happen to have access to narrow leaf yucca. All I use is an ax. The difficulty with yucca is the pointed tips, so I begin by gathering the leaves up, holding them up with one hand, leaving the base of the plant exposed. With the other hand, I chop the plant down as if it was a small tree.

After the yucca is cut, I peel the leaves away from the main body so that each leaf is separate.

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From here there are three options that I have heard of to liberate the fiber. One is to beat the leaf with a rock, stick, or hammer pulverizing the flesh and leaving the fiber. The next is to allow the leaves to soak in a bucket of water for several weeks until the flesh of the plant begins to rot off, and then scrape off the remnants of the flesh. The third is to boil the yucca in a pot of water for several hours until the flesh becomes soft, and then scrape the flesh off. The last method is my favorite. The first method is more manual labor, and I have a tendency to pound the leaves too much and damage the fiber. The second is all to easy to allow the yucca to rot too much, also damaging the fiber. But, I think that which way is best is a matter of personal taste.

After the fiber has been liberated, it’s nice to wash off any remaining flesh. The fibers will become a whitish color when clean. The longer the fibers are scraped and peeled apart, the finer they become. Dried yucca fibers will preserve for a long time, so it’s no hurry to used processed yucca fiber. To work the fibers into something, I first soak them in water until they become soft again. My skirt contains about one and a half narrow leaf yucca plants.

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The skirt is made in two pieces. I think of it as two opposing aprons. To make the skirt I took a buckskin lace and folded a small bundle of fiber over the top, tying it in by weaving through the bundles at the top. I repeated this until the skirt was as wide as my hips. I then repeated this for the back. I then came back and added another layer of weaving a few inches down to hold the fibers together.

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Simple Buckskin Dress

hidedress13I have always wanted to be able to wear buckskin clothing. Buckskin is soft and fluffy, but also very durable. Buckskins have been worn as clothes and made into bags, shoes, and so much more for millennia. This dress is a very straight forward design, only requiring two deer hides (in fact, the dress is only two pieces). Luckily my hides were just big enough to get a dress out of. I was definitely on the edge of not having a large enough set of hides. Unless you have really big hides, any dress that will be larger than a size 8-10 would probably need at least one more hide (but more on that in the next step). All seams are laced together with buckskin lacing.

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I began with a dress. For a pattern, I used a fabric dress that I had made from an old scarf. Around the edges on the sides, I left about an inch for seam allowance. I left the necklines very high and cut them down to shape later. Something to remember when sewing buckskin is that there’s no need to leave a hem allowance because the edge won’t fray like fabric, although binding the edge can be a very nice touch. To cut the hides, I used a very sharp scissors that I keep for cutting fabric and leather.

Cutting and sewing buckskin is not like cutting and sewing fabric. Buckskin is very three dimensional and varies in thickness. This is all very important to keep in mind when cutting because if you cut your pieces out of the edges of a hide where it’s wavy and thin it will result in a final garment that is not as strong as it should be, is difficult to sew because of the thickness, and will not lay smoothly on the body. It is worth not squeezing every possible inch out of the hide and just using the good thick consistent part.

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The sides of this dress are laced. Lace is made but cutting a thin piece off an edge of a hide. In simple terms, lace is leather string. I used an awl to punch holes along the side of the dress and threaded the lace through. It’s just like sewing fabric, but on a much larger scale.

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To check the fit, I tried the dress on, cutting a slit in the neck line to fit my head through. I discover that the dress needed a dart in the front and the back on the arm holes because there was a loose wrinkle as the shoulders curve into the arms. I also cut the neck to shape. The lower edges that I had left rough at the bottom, I cut smooth. The back laces, to shape the back without making darts, are threaded though the side lacing. I considered darting the back to fit the curve of the lower back, but then the waist would have been too small for my shoulders to get through without adding an opening and buttons.

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“Buckskin is more than just a beautiful leather and an amazing clothing material, it is also part of the evolutionary history of the human species.” –Woniya Thibeault Buckskin Revolution

Making Buckskin (Brain Tanning Deer Hides in 12 Steps)

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Buckskin is truly amazing material. It’s soft, breathable, strong, durable, and pest repellent in nature. It’s qualities have been tested and proven for millennia. It takes a lot of manual labor to make real brain tanned buckskin. For this reason good buckskin usually costs at least ten, if not fifteen, dollars per square foot from a professional tanner. There are cheaper commercially tanned hides available, but these are not processed the same. They don’t breathe. So commercially tanned is fine for bags and accessories, but it doesn’t wear anywhere near as well home tanned buckskin. If the word brain has caused anxiety, it is not necessary to use brain, a hide can certainly be traditionally tanned using other natural softeners (I often use eggs and olive oil instead of brain). I am by no means particularly accomplished at hide tanning. This is only my ninth hide. I first learned about hide tanning from professional hide tanners at the Winter Count skills gathering. For further instruction/discussion/etc., I would recommend braintan.com, Buckskin Revolution, or fromfarmandforest.com.

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First things first, hide acquisition. Hunting and taking the hide is the most obvious course, but time, place, etc. for hunting can be difficult to manage, so alternatives… Road kill (fresh) is a good place to get hides, or finding a hunter who doesn’t use the hide (which is many modern hunters) and offering some money for a cleanly skinned hide is good source for hides. As few holes as possible makes everything easier during the tanning proccess and results in a better final product. When I get a hide (from a roadkill or a friend who hunts), it may not be an opportune time to tan it, so preservation is usually the next step.

A hide can be saved almost indefinitely in a freezer. If at any point in the process I need to stop for a few days or months for whatever reason, the hide can simply be thrown into the freezer. The point of freezing is to prevent the hide from decaying. If a hide starts to rot, it is firstly not going to make good buckskin because bacteria will weaken the internal structure of the hide, and secondly is really gross and can make the tanner ill. If the hide is balled up, perhaps bundled into a trash bag, fresh, at room temperature, and with the hair still on, the hair will insulate the inside of the hide, allowing bacteria to thrive for several days before the hide is frozen through. So to prevent this, de-hairing the hide first makes putting the hide bundled up in a bag in the freezer possible without fear of rot.

hides003After the hide is thawed, the first thing to do is scrape or cut (whichever is easier) any meat that has remained on the hide after skinning. During the fleshing, graining, and rinsing, I make a point of wearing leather gloves over rubber gloves to thoroughly protect my hands. Hiding tanning is dangerous in that even a tiny cut can get blood poisoning if you work with bare hands. A lot of people do it no problem with bare hands (I have), but in the long run it’s just safer to wear a protective layer, particularly over open wounds, even just a paper cut.

hides004Lye is a strong base (opposite of an acid) and is sold at ordinary hardware stores as a drain opener. The only ingredient should be lye (not just any drain opener). Lye makes a hide swell and shrink temporarily. It loosens the hair, allowing it to come off easily, and the grain (the outer layer of skin) to come off more easily as well. To lye a hide, I get a tub of water (a five gallon bucket at the smallest) and add lye until the water is slippery to the touch (although really its not good to touch lye too much for fear of burns and one has to be wary of the fumes). Lye is a dangerous chemical if used without caution, so use common sense and read the label. I generally leave a hide to soak for a day or so. Changing the water at least once a day helps keep the hide fresh.hides005Making a work surface suited to scraping a hide is not too difficult. There are two common methods; an upright beam and a waist beam. The upright beam (the one I use) is a log or half a log (perhaps 4 to eight inches in diameter or a piece of drain pipe of the same size and almost as long a the tanner is tall) leaning up against a tree with the hide draped over the top. The other is a log or pipe of the same dimensions with two legs at one end so that one end rests on the ground and the other is held up to waist height by the legs. Each method uses different muscles when scraping, so it’s really up to whichever one feels best. I like upright because I don’t have to bend over to scrape (for which my back is always thankful for after a long day of de-hairing and graining).

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After a hide has been soaked in the lye and has become rather thick and rubbery, it’s time to de-hair. The hair should come right off, even if you just run a hand over it, assuming the hide has been soaked in the lye solution long enough. I find the back of a knife or drawknife will lift the hair right off.

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To grain a hide, the best tool (in my opinion) is a dull drawknife. To be more traditional, a piece of wood with one sharp edge, a bone with one sharp edge, or a rock with a moderately sharp edge will also get the job done. The goal is to scrape off the outer layer of skin without damaging the under layers, so the draw knife should be just dull enough that if one runs one’s finger over the blade, it will not create a cut. Use common sense, if you test a blade this way, make sure it really is dull first. The hardest part on the animal to grain is usually the back of the neck and the very edges. Sometimes its better to cut you losses (literally) by cutting off a difficult edge. Deciding whether to put the effort into a difficult part is about weighing the effort you’re putting into the hide and the quality of material you’ll be getting out. If it’s a difficult spot in the center it’s best to power through and scrape it thoroughly, but if it’s the last inch on a thin jagged edge it’s probably better just to trim it off.

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After all the grain has been scraped off, its time to rinse. I place the hide in a bath of plain water, changing it several times throughout a day to allow the lye to soak out. When the hide is white and flexible like wet cloth, as apposed to yellowish and rubbery, it’s probably ready to move on.

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Wringing out the rinse water helps the hide become dry enough, without drying, to absorb the brain solution more thoroughly. I learned to wring using a very specific technique that has worked very well for me. A good thorough wringing requires a smooth, sturdy, and (mostly) horizontal bar or branch and a small separate bar, branch or dowel. It begins by laying the hide membrane side up on a horizontal bar. Smoother is better for the wringing bar because rough spots can tear the hide. Take the edge that hangs farther down and lay it up on the bar, wrapping the hide around the bar loosely. Beginning at either side, roll the edge of the hide up until the middle is reached and then start again on the other side. The small independent pole threads through the bottom parallel to the main bar. This can now be used to twist the hide, wringing out the water. For a thorough wring, repeat this at least three to four times.

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Braining: the word that tends to throw people off. At this point you could take a deer’s head, pull out the brain and rub into the hide. It is a good and traditional method, but if you don’t hunt your own deer, they can be difficult to find. There are a lot recipes for softening hides, many of which do not call for brain. Different tanners will swear by their recipes, but it comes down to permeating the hide with emulsified oils (that is oils that can mix with water). The brain is filled with emulsified oils, so boiled (to kill bacteria), blended (preferably not with the kitchen blender), and then mixed with a little water (to give it enough volume to cover a hide in a bucket) is one of the most well known basic recipes, and probably one of the oldest. Eggs, or rather egg yolks, is a good natural non-brain method. Grated ivory soap with mixed with almost any oil will work as well. Basically, an emulsified oil or an emulsifier mixed with an oil will soften a hide. The tanner I learned from used brain or grated ivory soap mixed with grape seed oil, sometimes both together. I’ve taken to using egg yolks mixed with olive oil because those are things I have at home anyway, and that’s more or less the same solution my dad taught me to use ages ago.

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After the hide is wrung, I let it soak in brain until the hide has absorbed as much as possible. Then wring again, soak again, and wring again (not necessary, but it helps). Now to soften…

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Softening is not difficult, just time consuming. In essence, softening is continually stretching the hide until it dries. If not stretched, the hide will harden back to rawhide. The two methods of this that I have seen are stretching the hide over a post that has been set vertically in the ground at about waist height, or stretching a hide across a metal cable of between a quarter and an eighth inch diameter hung from head height to the ground. Both of these allow the use of body weight to stretch the hide as opposed to just sitting down and trying to stretch the hide with bare hands alone, which is fine, but only for those with strong hands.

When the hide is dry, the hide should be soft and fluffy. If it’s not, re-braining and softening is a good course of action. To expedite this process, smoking and then re-processing helps. If you start without smoking, all softening progress is lost, where as smoking freezes the hides at its current level of softness on which re-softening will build. If you soften a hide, don’t smoke it, and then get it wet it will return to rawhide. Smoking also makes buckskin repellent to pests that would otherwise want to eat the hide.

The first thing to do when smoking a hide is to sew it into a bag with an opening left at the neck to attach to a sleeve. The sleeve should be at least a six inches, preferably more, long and not narrower than the average pant leg. Usually the sleeve some kind of canvas or denim, but it doesn’t really matter. Old cut off pant legs work well.

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For an stove, I use a cinder block sunk into the ground with a hole under it connecting the two chambers (see pictures). On one side I attach the hide sleeve, and on the other I keep a lid with which to access the fire. It’s easier to use a small wood stove with a short stove pipe and attach the sleeve to the stove pipe, but that requires the wood stove that I don’t have. To go really low tech, a hole in the ground will do, but the risk of scorching the hide is much greater this way. The most convenient way I have ever heard of is to use a smoke house (the kind used to smoke meat). This way hides can be simply hung in the smoke house and left with no worries about scorching or sewing them into a bag. Returning to smoking a hide with some kind of stove, the key is to not scorch the hide. This will ruin a hide very easily and quickly (believe me, I know and it’s a dreadful feeling to see all that hard work go to waste).

I learned to smoke hides by making a small bed of hot coals (by burning down some charcoal or small chunks of hardwood) and then adding small pieces of wood, preferably rotten and dried, to keep the fire as smoky as possible. It can be difficult, after a life time of striving for clean burning smokeless fires for heating and cooking, to maintain a smoky fire. When I smoke a hide, I have to attend the fire constantly to maintain it’s smokiness. There should never be flames during hide smoking because this usually means the fire is not producing maximum smoke and flames can burn the hide. Using wood that smells good, or at least not bad, is also something to keep in mind during smoking. The smoke smell fades over time, but it doesn’t really go away. Also, it should be common sense to not use things like poison oak or poison ivy for hide smoking.

It’s time to turn the hides inside out to smoke the outside when the smoky brown color begins to bleed through to the outside. After the color begins to bleed through, leaving a hide to smoke longer is just about getting the desired color. Some people like the pale color and some like the dark, but as long as the smoke has penetrated through the whole hide, it’s essentially all the same.

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At this point, a hide should be finished; soft, fluffy, and a rich beautiful golden brown. The doors now stand open for clothes, bags, anything you can think of…

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