07 November 2014

Tanning Sheepskins

With the last of the sheep turned into sausage (except Cherub, who is still here waiting for a lift to her new home), I’ve been working on the sheepskins that the butcher saved for me.

I went to Sangudo Meats last Friday to pick up the hides, which had been expertly removed (and these folks do an excellent job processing meat and making sausage, too, as well as having great respect for the animals and treating them gently). Came home and hosed off the hides outside, and did an initial pass with the ulu to flesh the hide (though honestly they didn’t need a lot of work, sheepskin is fairly thin, and the initial skinning was done so well that there was very little to remove). Salted the hides and left them in the stock trailer overnight, where they would be safe from critters and cool (it’s cold at night here, but much warmer than usual for this time of year – so the stock trailer is like a big walk-in-fridge, rather than a deep freeze), and the drippy water could just run onto the rubber coated floor.

The next day, the two Icelandic hides got a second pass with the ulu then went into an acid bath: I filled the green turtle pool with water and a container of sulfamic acid, as well as a generous amount of salt, and let them soak for a few days. I weighted them down with rocks so that they stayed submerged, put the lid on the pool and weighted it with a sledgehammer so none of the critters might get into it accidentally, and ignored it. This step is called pickling.

The third hide, a crossbred Columbia/Hampshire/Icelandic lamb, was left well salted for several days, then brushed clean and brought inside for a more thorough fleshing. It was still quite moist, so I just worked it more thoroughly with the ulu and removed more of the thin membrane from the skin side, as well as scraping off the salt residue. I used dental floss to sew up the few holes I made (I’m a rookie, holes were inevitable) and then used Murphy’s Oil Soap to “brain tan” the hide: brains are the traditional substance, but soap and oil, eggs and oil, or a number of other things can be used – you do have to smoke it afterwards, to transmogrify the oils into the proper preservative and keep the hide soft, a step you don’t necessarily need with other tanning methods. As I’m experimenting to see what works well given the tools and materials I have on hand, I’m trying a few different methods. At least Murphys smells all right!

The soaped hide was then left to dry … the skin side is just now beginning to dry out after three days. I brushed the fleece out last night, a job that took a couple of hours with a dog brush … the staple length on this fleece is amazing and is so soft! Here you can see the before brushing and after brushing comparison:

Just look how cushy soft it is to stand on! It’s ankle deep!

Brushing got out the vast majority of the vegetable matter (and the odd bug), as well as cleaning out the dirt and dust. I think if I were to do this again, I’d bring the raw fresh hide in the house right off the bat and give it a very thorough washing with Sunlight soap (what we always used to wash live sheep before 4H shows, and which I still prefer for washing raw fleece) before starting the fleshing process – that way the fleece could be drying while the hide is salting out, and more of the gunk will be out from the get-go.

The hide side is starting to dry now, so I’m working it to keep it soft. This entails pulling and stretching as well as pressing a rounded bone into the skin to provide more stretch. The dogs helpfully brought me a perfect bone from somewhere: they found a nice cow femur that has a perfect ball on the end, nicely aged and slightly roughened so it also works like a pumice to help rub off the leftover bits of membrane. Because the fleece is so cushiony and soft (and clean now) I have the skin just lying on the couch and I scrub the bone into it, stretching into the skin and working it. Traditionally you tie the hide in a stretching frame then press into it with a rounded stick, but this seems to be working, there’s enough flex with the cushioning under the hide to allow for the pressure to stretch the hide when I push on it.

Photo 2014-11-07, 2 25 54 PM

See how the hide is turning white in the dry places? That’s what we want.

The Icelandic hides came out of the acid bath yesterday and were thoroughly rinsed and washed with soap – this will neutralize the acid as well as clean the fleece. The white fleece, Lambie’s, is just gorgeous: I spent a long time with the shower head on ‘massage’ setting washing the VM and dirt out because I want to leave the lock structure intact. It’s drying nicely (I draped it over a chair and blew a fan across it for several hours after the shower treatment), and this morning I oiled it with canola oil and will begin the breaking process as the skin starts to dry out.

Jellybean’s pelt, the black Icelandic, did get brushed as it was harder to work the locks clean for some reason. It’s hard to get a good picture of a black pelt indoors, but here you go!

The skin side of this one was treated with mink oil, and is hanging up to dry. These two should need only breaking, not smoking.

My brain isn’t working very well just now – it’s been a stressful couple of weeks at our house, as The Reluctant Farmer’s work contract was suddenly terminated and he has scrambled to find new work … he has just started a new position as a firefighter/EMT in an industrial department, and things are going well there so we’re all able to breathe a bit easier now but it takes a lot out of a person going through so much change. Working on the hides has been a good ‘mindless’ task. My arms and hands are pretty sore, but I just keep putting Voltaren on them and carrying on with the work!

Hopefully my brain is restored in the next few days. If you’ve been waiting to hear from me on anything, I do apologize … I’m just not really “all here” right now, so give me a few days then try again!

UPDATE: What I’ve learned, and images of the finished sheepskins … here!

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