Let me introduce you to my friend the sheep who became my most present companion for two months of last year. For a long time I had been interested in learning how to process animal hides. I was captivated by the idea of being able to cloth myself directly from nature. When my friend told me that at the local abattoir, the animals hides are often not used and are composted, I ceased the opportunity and asked for a hide. I needed a warm vest; this would do just perfectly. Little did I know this would form an intimate relationship of two months of almost daily attention, that I would merge with it, until I smelled of sheep, I dreamed of sheep, until my cloths were so covered in wooly hair that I probably looked like a sheep too.
Step one: Coming to terms with death
Living things are the most wonderous things I have ever witnessed. Its hard to come to terms with the fact that all of them die. I took solace in the fact that the sheep was going to die anyways and hoped to transform the hide in a way that honored the sheep. When I lay my hands on the hide, it was with a kind of reverence despite its smell, and blood and mud and hundreds if not thousands of burs knotted into its hair.
Step two: Clean!
Well every inch of that hair had to be carefully combed out and washed, and washed again. I don't have a bath or hot water, so it was outside on a tarp with cold December pond water and every so often a kettle of hot water to warm my hands. Two days of brushing, laundry soap, shampoo and two rounds of conditioner for good measure.
Step three: Stretch it out
Ok now that I had one clean sheep hide, I knew I had to stretch it on a frame. I managed to rope together a few branches to make a frame. Cross bars and nails in enough places and it didn't warp too much. I then began to tie the sheepskin to the rack, my knots slipping everywhere. I fumbled with them trying the different varieties of knots that the internet holds and adding more reinforcement to the rack as I went. Finally the hide seamed to hold, stretched out and I was pleased. Two days later it smelt like a wet dog and was about as dry as a warthog in a peat bog. There was no hope of getting it dry in BC's wet months. I had no choice but to find space for it in my tiny tiny home. Back to washing it again and then I stuck it in my home to dry by the fire. I could barely get in and out of my house but at least my sheep would dry.
Step four: Scrape it
Once it was nice and dry the inner membrane had to be scraped off. I borrowed a scraping tool and carefully began scraping. It was difficult to judge when the membrane was fully off, so I went a bit too far and the hide got a few holes. The sheep and I were a little disheartened, but we recovered.
Step five: Work it
The hide by this time was approximately the texture of cardboard, not very comfy for a vest. To soften it, fats had to be worked into the skin. Traditionally, brains were used as a source of fat to soften the hide. My mentor said vegetable shortening worked just fine. So I got a bar of Crisco, set the hide out in the rain for the night to soften and rubbed the shortening in the next day. I took it down from the rack. It them had to be pulled in every direction, continuously, until it dried to prevent it from getting stiff again. I stretched it length wise, width wise, diagonally and kneaded every inch between my hands, then repeated. I started at 9 am, by 9pm I was still stretching it. Needless to say I had a good sleep that night. The next day I got out of bed, feeling muscles I never knew I had, and checked on the hide... Stiff, completely stiff!
Step six: Work it again
Well I wasn't about to give up now, not after how far we had come. So out it went in the rain again and the next day I rubbed the Crisco in and worked it by the fire so it would dry faster and I could make sure it got completely dry within a day. This time was thankfully a success, it remained flexible even when dry.
Step seven: Smoke it
The thing is, as soon as a softened hide gets wet and dries again it will return to the texture of cardboard. To prevent this from happening, the skin has to be smoked and then it will remain soft even if it gets wet. The smoke has to be forced through the pores of the skin. To do this I sewed up the hide so that there was just an opening in the bottom. Around the opening I sewed a skirt with old jean fabric to prevent the hide from catching fire. My ordinary needles couldn't get through the thick skin so I purchased an awl to make the holes for the needle. I made a a fire with some punk wood so the fire would be extra smoky. Placed a chimney over this. Hung the hide above it and tied the skirt around the chimney.
As it started to smoke I realized there were a lot of holes in my sewing and the smoke was getting out through them. I did my best to fill these with bits of jean fabric and pine cones. After a couple of hours, the sheep skin was thoroughly smoked and so was I. The color had changed to this beautiful orange with the smoke.
Step eight: Air it out
I tried bringing it inside but the whole house smelled like smoke instantly and so I left it outside undercover to air out. I was greeted at the door by a waft of smoke smell for a couple weeks, while I worked out how I would sew it together into a vest.
Step nine: Vest
I borrowed my friends vest and traced its pieces onto newspaper. I taped the pieces of newspaper together and kept trying it on and cutting new pieces until I had something that fit. I then cut the newspaper apart and laid them out on the hide. The hide was a bit two small so I cut the newspaper pieces into even smaller pieces and puzzled over how to get them all to fit. When I finally had something that mostly worked, I traced the newspaper pieces onto the hide and cut them out.
Step ten: Deer legs?
At this point I began to wonder what people used to sew with, in times when animal hides were used. I wanted to craft the entire vest out of nature. I came across a few websites describing how to make sinew from leg tendon. The only problem was I didn't have the legs. Soon after, I heard word that at my friend's farm someone had hunted their first deer, and were looking for some tips on processing the hide. I went over and told them what I knew and came back with two deer legs. I managed to find the white tendons following the bones and cut them out. These I dried by the fire. Then pounded with a rock until the fibers started to separate. The website I had read said to chew the fibers to moisten and soften them, but I wasn't so sure so I peeled them apart and dipped them in water and spun them into cordage. A meditative practice that I enjoyed on long nights by the woodstove. But, when I tried sewing with it, the unevenness made it hard to get through the holes I punctured with my awl. Plus I had also read that sinew gets stretchy when wet and I didn't want the whole vest falling apart if it got rained on. So, I gave in and bought some cotton thread.
I stitched up the pieces with my awl, needle and cotton thread and tried it on. Just one thing missing...
Step nine: Buttons
I got a nice piece out from my woodpile, carved, shaped and sanded. Then I burned on some fun designs and sewed them to the vest. I had a scrap of leather hanging around that I cut into strips to make loops to fasten the buttons.
Well here we are, the sheep and me. Can you see our transformation?