Traditionally tanned hide is a unique material that has been used for survival by Aboriginal groups of Northern Canada for centuries. They are strong, durable, lightweight and warm – the perfect material to make clothing, bedding and footwear to sustain life in the Arctic.
The technique of hide tanning is very time consuming and takes a great deal of physical strength. Today, there may only be several individuals in a community who still tan hides in the traditional way. With only a few helping hands, tanning can take up to a month to complete with little financial gain. The end product is worth it though – the rich colour, durability and quality of home tanned hides will last two to three times longer than those tanned commercially. As demand for this raw material continues to outweigh supply, these pieces of art, decorated with beautiful patterns of beadwork or quillwork, are equally sought-after by customers around the world.
Preparing the Hide
The most commonly tanned hides are moose and caribou. Fall caribou hides are ideal because the hide is thick and the hair is not too long. Spring and summer moose hides are better for tanning than a winter hide, which is very thick and hard to soften.
A fresh hide is the best for tanning. If a hide must be stored for any length of time before tanning, it should be salted, rolled in sawdust and kept either in a cool place or frozen.
A hide is first soaked for three days to loosen the flesh and hair for easy removal. The wet hide is draped over a pole and using a knife, the flesh and hair are scraped off. The bulk of the flesh and hair is removed while the hide is wet and easier to work with. Then holes are made along the outside edge and the hide is tied to a stretcher frame to dry for a few days. Animal brains are traditionally used as the source of emulsified oils, but you can also use eggs or a mixture of soap and oil. Brain tanning is ideal for the production of clothing, bags, beadwork and all kinds of traditional products.
Once dry the softening process can begin. Using both hands, a fleshing tool is scraped across the flesh side of the hide in hard downward strokes. It usually takes two days to fully clean the flesh off a hide. The hide is then turned over and a smooth flat board is used to scrape the hair side, to remove any remaining hair and the hair follicles. The scraping and stretching continues until the hide is an even thickness of approximately two millimeters. The more the hide is scraped and worked, the softer it becomes.
The hide is removed from the frame and rinsed until it is clean. It is wrung out and opened to remove all the folds and wrinkles. This process is much easier with two people since a wet hide can weigh over 45 kilograms. The hide is hung over the frame to dry.
A process of smoking, soaking and stretching the hide follows as a final step in preparing the hide. Poles are gathered and put together like a tipi with the hide draped over. A fire is made inside the tipi using rotten spruce wood. Once smoked on one side, the hide is turned over and the other side is smoked. Each side takes about half a day to smoke. The hide is then soaked in a sudsy solution. The hide is then wrung out and stretched and scraped as it dries. These steps are repeated until the hide becomes very soft. As it softens, the hide becomes fuzzy.
Most traditional hides in the NWT are then smoke-tanned. To do this, the sides of the hide are sewn together and an old canvas cloth is sewn around the bottom to keep the skin from touching the ground. String is threaded through the holes along the top to hold the hide up over the coals. The hide hangs down to the ground producing an airtight structure around the smoking fire. Very hot coals are used to produce only smoke and no flame. Smoke from old rotten wood, mixed with dry cones, tans the skin a reddish colour. Using only old rotten wood tans the skin yellow.
The hide usually takes about four to five hours to achieve the desired colour. When the hide is smoked enough, it is taken down. Without opening it up, the hide is rolled and left overnight for more smoke to be absorbed. In the morning, the hide is unstitched and hung outdoors to release the smoke.
For more information on tanned hides, please download this brochure.