Honoring the Ancient Fibersheds

Herds of elk, deer, antelope– throngs of rabbits, and many other four-leggeds once roamed the hills, prairies, and river valleys of our ancient fibersheds.  The skins of these animals are the first pre-woven textiles, known to have provided shelter, clothing, and bedding for our ancient ancestors.

Several members of the fibershed community spent a weekend learning to tan goat, deer, and rabbit skins, using traditional Native American techniques.  A couple of our classmates brought their own skins to process (hence the raccoon).  Our teacher Tamara Wilder (seen above and below) is the author, along with her partner Steven Edholm, of Buckskin–the Ancient Art of Braintanning. Wilder facilitated an incredible workshop focused on turning hides into soft and functional leather, by utilizing the brain of the animal as a lubricant.

In the process of designing the material foundation for the 150 mile fibershed wardrobe I had some questions as to whether or not to include animal skins.  I had never slaughtered an animal, I don’t currently eat red meat, poultry or pork, and had some initial queries regarding the sustainability of leather– due to the fact that each animal must lose it’s life for us to have access to its skin.

However, I wear leather shoes, and belts.  Skins are a big part of my life, and yet I’d never taken the time to become connected to the animal–or the process necessary to create this functional, and beautiful material.

Wearing leather this year meant committing myself to the process of creating it.  The guiding philosophy of the fibershed project– is to facilitate the connection between ecological systems and the garments we depend upon.

It’s easy to be turned off by the way in which mainstream animal husbandry has become so heavily commodified– and animals so poorly treated for the extraction of their flesh and skins.

Today–the ruminant skins of cattle, goat and sheep are widely utilized for our everyday material culture and most of us don’t give a thought to their source– we generally enjoy their smooth, durable textures and earthy smells without regard for the life and labor involved in their creation.  As one takes the time to process these materials, a relationship with all that is connected to these skins begins to alter and expand the psyche of the participant.  Images of the internal forms of the animals–and images of my own internal form–my own ligaments, muscles, tendons and skin began to pass through my mind.  Instantly bringing me to the realization that my own form is a part of this material culture, and like all things… it too will someday change shape, decompose, and become a part of the greater food cycle for all number of organisms large and small.  In this way, it is clear to me that skins are renewable resources, and are but one element of an ongoing cycle of life and death.

Perhaps it is our likeness to the other animals–that being intimately exposed to their death can bring us into relationship with our own mortality, which invariably brings up a range emotional responses.

The buckskins we tanned were from the deer that had been shot by sport hunters–and the rabbit skins we processed were left-over from a Mendocino farm that raises them for meat.

We made use of skins that would have otherwise been viewed as unusable ‘by-products.’  Our group’s use of these skins was a way of honoring the animal’s life and appreciating the power and beauty of their physical form.

We began with a process known as wet-scraping, whereby the skin is hung upon a diagonal beam, and laid out so that the hair, membrane (hypodermis), and grain (part of the dermis) can be removed.  Traditionally bones would have been used for this process, we instead used recycled dull wood planes with hand-crafted handles.  These edges must be bevelled on one side and perfectly flat on the other to be in good working order for the process.

The skin is strong– and can withstand, and even requires a significant amount of strength to remove the membrane, hair and grain.  The gaining process requires the most careful and consistent attention, with strong overlapping strokes– and is done once the hair and membrane have been removed.  Each of these steps is done with the same tools (scraper and beam), and similar physical motion on the part of the tanner.

One member of our class utilized a traditional tanning technique called dry-scraping.  To do this he strung the goat skin on a wooden frame and used a slightly different shaped tool to remove the layers of membrane and fascia.

The tanner chooses whether or not to leave the hair on the animal.  In the case of the buckskin– we removed all the hair.  In the case of the rabbits– we left the soft fur in place.  Once the scraping had been done (whether wet or dry scraped)– we gently rubbed the brain into all parts of the exposed skin.

Dyan Ashby, on the left is seen here– she is one of the designers, and an integral member of the Fibershed community. Here, we rubbed brain into the flesh of one of the rabbit skins.  There were several quick moments of repulsion that took place before this picture was taken.

Because all of the hair had been removed from the buckskin we immersed the entire skin into a bath of warm water mixed with brain, and egg yolk.  These proteins are essential for softening and lubricating the skin.

Once the buckskin was removed from its bath we used large branches to twist, stretch, and and squeeze the liquid from the skin.  The movements were reminiscent of an ancient martial art. The soaking, squeezing, and stretching process was done over and over again.

The community effort was such an enjoyable aspect of the process.  As a group we moved from skin to skin, sharing in all of the physical movements together.  The tanning process weaves together experiences that are deeply satisfying to our human nature.

Once we had scraped, soaked, and stretched the skin we used pumice stones to remove any remaining parts of the fascia.

Mali Mrozinski (left) is one of the designers involved in the Fibershed project.  She is a fantastic artist–who began a deep relationship with rabbit skins during our weekend workshop.

We were all transformed by the intimate process of working with the skins.  The primordial and ancient processes evoked varied but penetrating responses in each of us–most of them were more complex than words can describe.

The ancient movements, smells, and visuals stimulated latent and dormant aspects of our human nature.  The techniques appear to be new information for the modern mind—yet there is an instantaneous recognition of the process that engenders a sense of deep familiarity.

I give thanks to Tamara Wilder, my teacher, to all of those in our class for creating such a powerful community experience, and mostly to the animals whose lives so generously provided for us.

For brain tanning classes you can check out the website Paleotechnics.